I still vividly remember my first trek across the deserts of the minimalist game Journey. I knew it had me from the very moment I started to move towards the glowing mountain ahead. Of course, I didn’t know much about what was going on, only that I needed to end up on top of that mountain. I still have questions about that game and what it all meant in the end, as a lot of my theories and speculations went unanswered, but at no point during my playthrough of Journey did I feel as if I was missing anything that could be found in more traditionally fleshed out titles.
The sense of wonder in Journey is achieved with very little in the way of content, whilst a game with ten times the amount of content might well struggle to make a fulfilling experience. It is often the case that open world games will splatter their maps with collectibles and side objectives in a vain attempt to make their world feel as if it is full of things to do. The issue at hand however is not so much to do with giving the player things that they can do, but to ensure that they will actively want to do it.
In a game like Far Cry 3 for example, climbing yet another radio tower was a dull experience and not one that I looked forward to doing. Instead I would be simply checking off the to do list that is the core of such games. Compare this experience with that of the how you explore in Journey, where collectibles only serve to make it easier to explore further, or give you the tiniest glimpse of the story permeating the world. Far Cry 3 however feels like a vehicle for quests and collectible items, whilst Journey’s world feels alive as you travel through it, as if it is consistently pulling you towards the end goal by always having the glowing mountain top in view.
The old adage of ‘less being more’ is used to full effect by a minimalist game like Journey. Gone Home was a likewise memorable experience because of its attention to minute detail, and limiting the use of sound to only when necessary. The game cleverly disguised itself as a horror, only to then deftly reveal itself as a teen drama. By playing on tropes of a spooky house and mentioning ghosts in passing, that when the game fails to deliver a jumpscare, it is actually quite surprising. Even someone who feels lukewarm to a story of teen romance like myself couldn’t help but be drawn into the story, simply by being drip feed a well written narrative at a good pace.
Where gameplay is minimal, and narrative is similarly thin, it takes a certain mastery to ensnare the player into the experience. Gone Home is able to come and go quickly without outstaying its welcome, while searching for feathers in Assassin’s Creed II quickly became as pointless as hoarding money or owning property – just another meaningless task among many. Content for the sake of content is the bane of many titles in the gaming marketplace; players in Gone Home feast on the details of the house, hungry to know more about the owners, whilst players could be forgiven for not caring a great deal about shooting all the pigeons in GTAIV.
A game I find to be a master-class in minimalist game design is that of Jalopy. Based in a fictional Communist-era Eastern Europe, the game has you and your uncle drive a car that’s constantly breaking down from country to country, while also trying to smuggle contraband. The game itself has very little to it; there’s a certain charm similar to Euro Truck Simulator 2 that few games are able to replicate. Simply driving from A to B and making a story in between as you go is the real meat of what a game like Jalopy has to offer – but granted it is an acquired taste. A game like Jalopy gives you a true sandbox in which to explore and enjoy your time. Unlike a more focused experience, the game allows the player to make their own narrative for the most part.
A classically minimalist game is Thomas Was Alone. To me, it’s one of the best gaming experiences to be released this decade. The characters in the game are just a few multicolored shapes that are given names and personalities by the charming narration of Danny Wallace. The personalities in the game however are not simply ascribed at random, but instead in relation to their shapes and abilities. Thomas is a regular rectangle and simply wants to make friends and explore, Chris is a shorter square, who can’t jump as high as Thomas and feels cynical about the world around him due to this, whilst John on the other hand can jump higher than anyone else and feels superior to all other shapes with a great need to show off. The narration compliments this dynamic perfectly, creating an engrossing story out of what is at its core a simple platformer. All without DLC or god-beams, all without 4K graphics and motion capture movie stars.
Thomas Was Alone is able to achieve what so many games are unable to by avoiding distractions and sticking to the basics, and shines because of it. I care for the characters of Thomas and Chris far more than I ever have for Nathan Drake or Master Chief, but I’ve never seen any quadrilaterals on the front covers of gaming magazines. Apart from Square-Enix.
Finally, take another minimalist game Shadow of the Colossus. This wonderful title gives the player practically nothing in the way of story or gameplay and yet still has maintained its place as one of the most recognizable cult-classics in gaming. It is not particularly hard to see why; the game oozes atmosphere and daunts you with the sheer size of some of the ‘Colossi’ that tower over you. The fear of being crushed by the enraged giant suddenly transforms to adrenaline as you make your way up its back to the illuminated weak spot – the monster powerless to shake you off. This amazing gameplay experience is achieved in an empty, seemingly lifeless expanse of barren wastes, deserts and lush greenery. The game Titan Souls is a modern spiritual successor to Shadow and I would highly recommend it as it captures the a lot of the same wonder and haunting beauty of its inspiration, whilst still being its own game.
Games are able to say a lot and make a big impression upon their players without having to toss as much content in their faces as possible. Many of the best minimalist games are only created as such because the developers understood that it is always better to do a few things very well than it is to try and do many things in a standard or potentially lacking way. The games that can make a lasting impression are the games will ultimately inspire future creators to make their own works of art. If these minimalist game design does become the inspiration to other developers, I am looking forward to a bright future indeed.