Simplify! But What?

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A game can not be (and indeed should not be) a perfect copy of real life. Some things are different (fantasy), but most are simplified. This is good. We play games, in part, to escape from the complexity of normal life and focus on a few relevant details. We desire to fit the whole problem in our heads, and most of us have heads too small for the real world.

And one can only do so much. Ideally game designers could include everything in the world, but our minds are not yet broad enough (nor our game systems powerful enough) to do this. So, since some form of simplification is both desired and required, we must ask, “What do we simplify?”

First, let’s simplify the question (Is ‘writing’ and ‘communication’ a game?). Games can be said to be composed of mechanics, presentation, interface, and story. Next, let’s turn the question on it’s head. An individual game usually focuses on simplifying every aspect but one. Let us examine each of these qualities in turn, and the kinds of games that focus their complexity in each.

Mechanics are nearly always broken into Nouns and Verbs. In many computer games the only Verbs available are Movement and Violence. A few games add Creation as a verb. Nouns are a bit broader, but there is generally a strict division between Person, Place, and Thing.

“Action” games invest a good deal of their mechanical complexity in their verbs. Movement like running, climbing, jumping, and dodging are common. Violence (in a variety of forms) abounds, but is generally confined to some form of personal strike, either close (mele) or afar (range). Many “war” games focus their complexity in the variety of weapons available. “Creative” and “god” games usually add a Creation verb, where the player may form or build. Often, this too is vastly simplified, though some games (the “sim” games for instance) invest a good deal of complexity in their Creation verb options. Real life sports tend to restrict and simplify the range of verbs available to the players (as simplifying real life is one of the goals of game play)

Nouns are a more difficult matter to judge. Clearly, one could name all the pawns in Chess differently, but this would not really alter the game. When judged in this light, the variety of most game’s nouns is quite small. There are usually a handful of Persons, a larger handful of Places, and perhaps a good stack of Things. “Relationship” games like dating sims tend to concentrate complexity in Persons. “Sandbox” and “Exploration” games embellish their Places. Games with “collectible” aspects are well served by a host of Things to pick up and hoard. Real life games, on the other hand, tend to reduce the range of Nouns (since in real life, no two things are really actually alike) standard playing fields, restriction of performance enhancing drugs, etc.

But complexity can be deceptive. “RPG” style games are renown for their variety of nouns but (appearances aside) there is often no real difference between a “healing potion” and a “greater healing potion” except in degree. This is simplicity posing as complexity, a poor state of affairs. Characters too fall into this trap, with a diversity of degree often posing as a diversity in kind. If the only difference between foes is the number of their “hit points” and how much “damage” their attack does, then they are really a quite simple element. Games boasting a “variety of weapons” often exploit this confusion, where a few simple underlying Violence verbs support a host of superficial complexity.

Simplicity can be deceptive as well, though it is quite rare. Hidden information requires the developer to conceal much of the work they put into modeling the system. Only few game developers have the confidence to hide their complex systems behind a facade of simplicity, and expect the players to unearth the true depth of the game. Most “CCG” systems support this kind of surprising complexity.

Presentation is the realm of “graphics” and “sound track” and so forth. “Cinematic” games focus nearly all of their complexity here (and thus vastly simplifying their mechanics, interface, and story). Games of all types often have visual complexity far beyond what is required by the game itself, which is as it should be. There are many attempts in real life games to simplify presentation, both for clarity and uniformity. The adoption of uniforms in sports is an excellent example of simplified presentation.

Interface complexity is the difficulty of aligning the game state with the will of the player. “Execution” games such as rhythm games, games under time pressure, and reflex style “twitch” games concentrate complexity in their interface. The point is to make the game challenging by rendering the interface slippery or unwieldy. Simple sports tend to be neither more, nor less simple than real life in this respect. The interface is your body, with all which that implies. Sports involving tools such as bats, sticks, and mounts are a good example of real life interface complexity.

Story complexity deals with the range of possible “paths” through the game space. Sports tend to have a phenomenal range of story complexity, and channeling devices such as fields, goals, wickets, and targets are all methods used to simplify this aspect. Computer games, on the other hand, are nearly all of a claustrophobic nature when it comes to story complexity. The valid paths through computer games are nearly always completely channeled through extremely narrow paths, gates, and goals. “Sandbox” games tend to focus their complexity in the Story aspect (though it rarely resembles the narrative which we expect from non-interactive mediums).

So, complexity and simplicity can be expressed in a variety of ways. Depending on the purpose of the game, a certain level of complexity may be required. In general, complexity (in all forms) is costly to develop and properly manage. A game can only afford so much of it, so simplify when possible. And keep in mind, simplicity is one of the purposes of games, but it is meant to mimic the complexity of life. Neither simplicity nor complexity is an end in itself.

See this article by Keith Burgun for another angle on the topic of complexity.

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