Tuesday, February 8

On Minimalism & Subtractive Design

There is much to be said about working with only the barest of tools.  Minimalist works give us art that can be beautiful in visual or aural simplicity, and the idea of stripping away everything superfluous can create very focused and tight works.
Minimalism is originally a term used in architecture, where the designs of a building are reduced until all that remains are the absolutely necessary pieces.  In games, it’s the attempt to get down to the fundamental aspect of games as an art form.  That is, interactivity.
Games are interactive by nature, and though I believe all art is the process of interaction between artist and audience, games are the only medium that truly focuses on that quality.  I believe this is one of the reasons we see many game artists rallying against the idea of cutscene heavy games.
Probably some of the best examples of minimalist game design come from Rod Humble, whose games you may find for free here.  Humble’s games only use the simplest of graphics and sounds, which only convey minor ideas.  It’s in play, at its purest form, that he attempts to portray an experience.  There are framing devices given by the games’ titles, which provide a bit of crucial context for the idea at play, but that’s all the context we get.
It speaks to me, man.
Because I work from a Mac, I can’t download Humble’s games, but I’d like to look at a similar game created by Gregory Weir over at Ludus Novus.  His game, Procrastination, is about as simplistic visually as games can get.  You can see an image from the game to the left.  If you want to play it for yourself and figure out what’s going on with the different coloured blocks there, go and play it before I tell you.
You play the game as the thick, light grey bar near the bottom, collecting the falling blue and yellow blocks.  The bar you are is just short enough that you can’t possibly collect both types of blocks at once.  The blue blocks represent the work you do, and the yellow blocks represent your procrastination.  You procrastinate to stay happy, and though work is less available at your most happy, it begins to fall faster the more you collect until your happiness gets too low.  Hard to work when you’re too used to the lazy life, hard to work when you’re already overworked.
If that last paragraph sounds complicated, it’s because Weir has created a fantastic relationship between work and pleasure, and has translated it into a frighteningly simple game.  And so we can all be certain I’m not making this up, or looking for more meaning than can reasonably be argued for: After the white bar at the top of the screen (time remaining) disappears, you’re treated to a scoring screen that lets you know how well you worked or procrastinated, with separate scores for the number of jobs completed, your productivity rate, and even your Ennui.
To finally come to the point, it is Weir’s intention here to create as purely an interactive experience as is possible.  This is Minimalism’s greatest value in gaming: to examine the core, unique aspect of the medium, stripped away from superfluous art, music, dialogue, or even much context.

A method related, at least in philosophy, to Minimalism in games is Subtractive Design.  Subtractive Design is best explained through representation.  Team Ico have done a wonderful job at providing two examples in Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.
If you don't have it, go buy it.  Now.
Shadow of the Colossus is about a boy trying to resurrect a girl.  More than that, it’s about the toll that his quest takes on him.  Look at the mechanics of the game: Sixteen fights with massive, seemingly impossible-to-kill creatures, and riding your horse between those fights.  Barely anything when compared to the vast array of mechanics in say, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but still one of the more critically acclaimed games out there.  That’s because when the creators sat down, they took the core idea of “Boy has a tough time getting back girl,” put it in a platform/adventure game type, and then tore away everything that didn’t need to be there.  There is no count for the number of arrows you have, no weapon degradation, just you, your horse, a grip gauge and a health bar.
They were able to polish the more subtle, and yet very important aspects.  The relationship you can develop with your horse, the slow blackening of the boy’s skin, the look and feel of every ruin you pass through.  All of these elements were given preference over giving you another weapon, or even an NPC to talk to.
With Subtractive Design, the question you should pose to any element of the game is: “is it necessary to help the core idea?”  If not, it can probably be safely cut.  Hence “Subtractive.”  Start with all the common elements of the genre, and cut until you have only what you need.  This is why we’ve seen health bars disappear from shooters, or the ability to carry a complete arsenal of guns.  Those elements detracted from the experience of hectic, difficult, and realistic warfare that the developers were trying to create.
Subtractive design allows for very tight and focused games, but it has its share of issues.  It means that during the creative process, there will have to be a very clear and succinct description of the game, and when perfect clarity is brought into play, it can be more polarizing, causing many people to figure out that they never liked the idea in the first place, and even more people to realize the game feels insubstantial on paper.
Ubisoft or EA, you have a vast number of tools at your disposal to refine any element you choose for the game.  But if you’re working from your bedroom, or from a University club (as indeed I am), then your budget of about zero dollars won’t allow you as much refinement.  Your options then become slim.
In these situations, I find it best to focus on what you have access to.  For instance, in your RPG, you may not have the money for long, fully animated cutscenes, but maybe your school has a drama program, and voice actors who will work for exposure rather than money.  Maybe you happen to have a dedicated programmer in the school who knows the Unreal Engine inside and out.  In situations like these, I find the best method is to morph your game to play to the strengths of your resources.  If in College or University, get those people on your team, because this is probably the latest in life you can still get them to work for free.

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