[Letters from a New York Indie is a diary written by friend of Hookshot Inc, Kevin Cancienne, one of the creators of Drop7, who recently left his position as Director of Game Development at area/code to pursue life as an independent game-maker. The series documents life as a one-man indie as Cancienne develops his first project, first person shooter Plus Gun.]
Last time I wrote about why I like short games. I’m also fascinated by simple games. Part my attraction to small games is their relationship to minimalism — that magical thing that happens when a tiny set of simple rules creates something complex and beautiful. But my interest in minimalism doesn’t always pull me in the direction you might assume. I’m fascinated by games that apply their minimalist components to create something that feels like the antithesis of minimalism. I like games that create chaos.
Chaos hardly seems a difficult effect to create in a game. Noisy, insistent, disposable spectacle and the gape-mouthed, atavistic response it inspires in players is a familiar flavor in videogames. Furthermore, all of that seems like just the sort of thing indie games and an interest in progressive game design allow us to shake off. But I have unsophisticated taste. I love it anyway.
I understand I’m not alone in this. Sensory overload, and that delicious feeling of just barely keeping your head above water is well loved, and deservedly so. You get it when you surf the psychedelic waves of the latest Jeff Minter game or Spheres of Chaos. Or when you barely hang on amidst the explosive insanity of a bullet hell Cave shooter like DoDonPachi. Or when you revel in the bloodlust of any first person shooter free-for-all deathmatch from the past twenty years. Few would call these minimalist games.
My friend Andy Nealen shares my interest in game design minimalism. Andy gave a dense, thought-provoking talk at GDC 2012 called “Simple Vs. Complex and the Space Between.” Andy is a game designer and computer scientist who started his career as an architect, and happens to be writing a book on minimalist game design with Adam Saltsman. He has a keen interest in the way complexity arises from simple rules. His talk is a fascinating attempt to synthesize techniques and terminology from mathematics and the arts to better understand how minimalism and complexity relate.
What Andy’s primarily talking about, though, is what I’ll call formal minimalism: is the thing in question composed of a minimal set of simple elements? I’d say there’s another aspect to minimalism worth pulling out; what I’ll call aesthetic minimalism: does the thing feel minimal when experienced at a surface level? Minimalism, especially as expressed in architecture, often traces its roots to Zen philosophy, and tends to exude a sense of serenity by emphasizing the simplicity of its elements.
The two aspects tend to go together. Take Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ by minimalist composer Steve Reich. Reich uses a rigorously constrained set of sounds to create a piece with an almost hypnotic sense of peace and order. Minimalism through and through.
Now listen to Seeing Red by Minor Threat. The sounds involved are almost as rigorously constrained as Reich’s — just a few guitar chords, bass, drums, and the human voice — but the effect is anything but hypnotic or peaceful. The angry, noisy energy might distract from the how intentionally constrained the song is on a formal level, but those constraints simultaneously enable the chaotic aesthetic result.
When we talk about minimalist games, we tend to think about games more like Reich’s piece than Minor Threat’s. Minimalist games like Drop7, Osmos, and Canabalt all have constrained visuals and audio to complement their minimal game mechanics.
But what happens when you try to hold onto the spirit of minimalism with your game mechanics, but shoot for utter chaos in your gameplay? I guess this is what I was going for in Plus Gun.
When it first came out, Bizarre Creations’ Geometry Wars completely monopolized time on my shiny new XBOX 360. I found it beautiful. Not the glowy, particle-strewn, retro spectacle of its vector graphics, but the design of its enemies. Each has its own singular, simple behavior. When overlaid, these simple enemy behaviors create emergent scenarios that are much more than the sum of their parts.
I tried to apply the same trick in Plus Gun. My decision to keep enemy AI simple was inspired as much by a sense of aesthetic purity as by pragmatism: simple behaviors would be easier and faster to code. Swarmers head straight for the player and impede progress. Leapers break the 2D plane, following parabolic arcs toward your position. Bruisers’ powerful projectiles force you to keep moving. And Snipers keep out of the main scrum and harass you from afar, tempting you to shift your priorities. Most of the behaviors are less than a hundred lines of code, and all depend on simple geometric calculations to produce their effects.
To create my desired level of chaos, I borrowed another simple trick from Geometry Wars: throw lots of enemies at the player and keep doing it.
As I write this, I’ve begun to seriously doubt whether my experiments in Plus Gun were successful. My interest in chaotic games feels undiminished, however. And the recipe for pushing minimalist mechanics into chaos seems as simple and dependable as it is in punk rock: turn up the volume and go fast.
 My first entry in this series inspired a response from Michael Brough (@smestorp), creator of the awesome Zaga 33 and the possibly awesomer Glitch Tank, among many other things. In that post, Michael talks about chaos of a different sort: the relationship between short games, good games, predictability and unpredictability, as seen through the lens of Chaos Theory.