Ramping up

Simplicity plus

Shatter  Foyer_frenzy

A year ago N'Gai Croal said on my podcast he found himself increasingly drawn to simple games that deliver bursts of fun streamlined play. I recall thinking he was crazy (a thought I timidly kept to myself). In August of '08 we were feverishly anticipating the arrival of the Serial F-Game Trio: Fallout 3, Fable 2, and Far Cry 2; close on the heels of the Serial Acronym Duo: MGS4 and GTA4. Big games with big ambitions all.

Lately, I'm coming around to N'Gai's way of thinking. I'm learning to more fully appreciate the little things small games do well. While I'm sure I'll break out my happy dance at the inevitable Persona 5 announcement, I don't measure games by the same value criteria I applied when I was younger. 50-hour RPGs and games that offer lots of replay value are nice, but these days I'm just as happy to play a polished well-designed title that executes on its concept, even when that concept is quite simple.

Simplicity isn't easy. We say less is more, but most people don't believe it. I teach writing in my courses, and year after year my students struggle to produce clear, concise prose. For many students this:

In my opinion, there are many possible explanations for how and why teenagers are drawn to certain video games, but perhaps the most logical reason is because they provide endless hours of fun recreation.

is perceived as 'smarter' than this:

Teenagers enjoy fun video games.

I try to convince them otherwise.

Simplicity is nice, but it only gets you so far. Two games I've played this week: Shatter and Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, illustrate the allure of simplicity when coupled with two other key ingredients: elegance and a hook. In the hands of the right developer, this simple recipe can produce a truly marvelous game.

Shatter (PS3) mashes up Pong and Arkanoid/Breakout, with a healthy splash of Rez. You must deflect a ball with your paddle to destroy a field of blocks and clear each level. A handful of power-ups give you more power or add to your point totals. The elegance comes via its smooth responsive controls, subtle sonic and tactile feedback, rock-solid mechanics, and slick presentation highlighted by a retro-inspired soundscape that "flows through electro rock, epic guitar solos and spacey vibes." It's not quite in the Rez soundtrack league, but it comes fairly close.

Developer Sidhe could have left it there, but they wisely added a couple of hooks that elevate the gameplay: the ability to release multiple balls at once, and the "suck and blow" mechanic (I don't make 'em up, folks, I just report 'em) which enables you to further manipulate the flight of the ball. These two small but significant additions distinguish Shatter from its influences and make the game feel fresh. I can't stop playing it.

Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor (iPhone/iPod Touch) is a very different kind of game, but it relies on the same recipe of simplicity, elegance, and hook. You play as a spider in an old abandoned mansion, and you must spin webs to catch insects and transport yourself from one room to the next. Nothing very complicated about that, but the game encourages you to find your own path and succeed with your own strategies.

Movement and mechanics are handled adroitly, which is saying something for a game emphasizing locomotion on a platform full of clunky-control games. Visually the game is an utter treat with hand-painted backgrounds and beautifully animated insects that deliver a palpable sense of space and place. Elegance would seem to be a core design principle in Spider.

So what's the hook? Well, it's a big one that I'm saving for another post. For now, I'll simply say that Randy Smith and David Kalina co-founded the new company that designed Spider, and if you know anything about their work or their innovative ideas about storytelling in games, you will find this little game functions as a startlingly successful proof of concept. Spider makes a virtue of simplicity; but it also suggests simplicity can sometimes conceal things that aren't simple at all.