When communicating a message, brevity can be more viable than verbosity.
It depends on the message you want to convey, your delivery method, and your intended audience. As a game developer, your game is your message. Minimalism is the brevity of game design: a way to engage your audience more efficiently by favoring simplicity over complexity.
But don't confuse a lack of complexity with the lack of challenge or depth, because many successful games have proven that minimalism and traditional game design philosophies can coexist beautifully. Examples of this range from the rhythmically challenging, geometric simplicity of Terry Cavanagh's Super Hexagon to the epic scale of Fumito Ueda's emotionally deep Shadow of the Colossus.
Whether it's a straight-forward aesthetic implementation or a metaphorical, narrative-focused approach, this article will help you to use minimalism in your projects and prove the old adage that 'less is more'.
What is Minimalism?
A Brief History
Minimalism, as an art movement, arose in the 1960s as a by-product of philosophical modernism. Modernism was a rejection of outdated ways of thinking, and this directly affected artistic expression.
Previous art movements consisted of abstraction and subjective metaphors while minimalism focused on objective literalism. Artwork from this period featured limited colors, geometric shapes, and a general lack of detail. The aesthetic properties of minimalist art still exist today, but minimalism in modern game design is ironically much more complicated.
The general purpose of minimalism in game design is to accentuate a game's specific elements by limiting the scope or detail of the other surrounding elements. For a simplified 'real world' example, imagine wearing a blindfold to place a greater emphasis on your sense of touch.
An entire game can be designed with minimalism as a core concept, but minimalism can also be invoked only when needed. Art, sound, gameplay, and narrative can all be subject to minimalist interpretations.
Examples of Minimalism in Popular Games
The best way to understand minimalism as a game developer is to experience great examples of minimalism as a game player. In fact, an entire book could be written about the history of minimalism in video games. Whether you play on consoles, PC, handhelds, or mobile devices, you've undoubtedly encountered a game that was at least partially designed around these concepts.
Let's take a look at a small selection of games that feature a wide variety of minimalistic design elements. Some of these may challenge your idea of what minimalism is and help you think differently about game design.
Terry Cavanagh, the developer of Super Hexagon describes his work as a “minimal action game”. The player object is represented by a small triangle, and the game world consists of a central hexagon that attracts rhythmically moving shapes. All the player has to do is press left or right to avoid the incoming shapes and survive for as long as possible.
The art style and gameplay mechanics utilize minimalism to put extreme focus on the objective, while the pulsing soundtrack and rhythm-fuelled animations put the player into an almost hypnotic state. Super Hexagon is the perfect example of a game that features minimalism as a core design philosophy while maintaining an intense level of difficulty.
Dwarf Fortress, by Tarn and Zach Adams, is a notoriously challenging simulation game with roguelike elements. The only thing about Dwarf Fortress that can be considered minimalistic is the aesthetic design: game objects are represented by ASCII characters rather than hand-drawn sprites.
In this case, minimalism is used to trigger a nostalgic response that reminds players of a time when game graphics required a powerful imagination.
Mirror's Edge, a first-person parkour action game by EA Dice, combines futuristic architecture and minimalism in a unique way to assist players with navigation. The city that the player runs around in is full of bright, sharp edges and the buildings stand like white monoliths against a blue sky.
Rather than following screen-cluttering HUD elements, players are instead led through checkpoints by running towards certain actionable environmental objects that have been painted red. This type of minimalism is both visually striking and highly intuitive.
In 2007, Jason Rohrer released a minimalist art game entitled Passage. This game takes place entirely within a 100x16 window and can be completed in five minutes. With themes of loss, mortality, and the human condition, Passage manages to pack a powerful punch despite its limited scope—although with no traditional win condition, it can be argued that Passage isn't even a game at all.
This type of minimalism is used to provoke thought and convey a very specific message through metaphors by forcing the player to reflect on the experience by asking, “why?”
I bet you didn't expect to see a Metal Gear Solid game in a collection of minimalist games! Hideo Kojima, the creator of this iconic franchise, is known for drawing from numerous artistic, historical, and pop-culture influences. A particular scene in Metal Gear Solid 3 features the game's protagonist climbing an incredibly tall ladder. After walking down a long, windy tunnel, the player reaches a dead end and is forced to climb a ladder for two whole minutes. During this climb, an a cappella version of the game's theme song begins to play. The words “I give my life. Not for honor, but for you” echo through the tunnel during the song, creating a haunting moment that sticks with players long after the credits have rolled.
This is an example of minimalism being invoked in an otherwise complex and verbose experience to create a meaningful and poignant moment.
Thomas Was Alone, by Mike Bithell, is a game that you will never understand just by looking at screenshots. On the surface, Thomas Was Alone appears to be a typical puzzle platformer with simple, polygonal characters devoid of personality. What lies beneath that minimalistic coat of paint is a deceptively deep and captivating experience full of character.
This combination of aesthetic minimalism and compelling narrative design is useful for creators that may lack advanced visual art skills.
The Nintendo Wii was a console that was built entirely around the concept of minimalism. In an effort to attract a wider audience, Nintendo created a controller with pared down inputs and a focus on motion control. And with Wii Sports, Nintendo arguably created the most successful minimalist game of all time. By removing excesses and placing a larger emphasis on simplistic, yet intuitive gameplay, Nintendo proved that minimalism could be incredibly popular.
Journey, the award-winning adventure game by Thatgamecompany, uses minimalism in several unique ways. Much like Flower, by the same developer, there is a distinct lack of exposition, and no explanations to help the player understand exactly what is transpiring. Players learn through unguided exploration instead of long-winded tutorials and gratuitous on-screen prompts.
The simplified gameplay mechanics help to facilitate this, but the true power of Journey's minimalism is found in the game's multiplayer mode. Players seamlessly drop in to a co-op session without a notification and with no way to communicate aside from a few simple emotes. The bonding that occurs between two complete strangers in Journey is a testament to how powerful human interaction can be, even after removing the excesses of traditional multiplayer gaming conventions.
Shadow of the Colossus, by Fumito Ueda and Team Ico, is an adventure game on an epic scale. Players wield a sword, ride a horse, shoot arrows, and fight enormous bosses in an attempt to save a loved one. But unlike most adventure games, Shadow of the Colossus does not feature any smaller enemies—"grunts" that typically exist in large quantities to challenge the player through dungeons and overworlds.
There are only 16 enemies in Shadow of the Colossus, and they're all giant puzzle-centric boss encounters. Time spent between boss battles is somber, quiet, and full of relaxed exploration. The mood set by this unique combination of elements is unmatched, and is a trademark style of Ueda's particular brand of minimalist design.
If you want even more inspiration, check out these 2,346 individual interpretations of minimalism in game design.
Limitation vs. Intention
When talking about the history of minimalism in games, it's very important to understand the difference between limitation and intention. By today's standards, Pong is a minimalist exercise in art, input, sound, and mechanics. But this was not entirely by design; it was mainly due to hardware limitations.
Early Game Boy games used a monochrome four-shades color palette, and the Game Boy Color saw an increase to 32,768 colors. Now there are entire gamejams devoted to replicating the limited palette of the original Game Boy. Are these self-imposed limitations an example of minimalism, or are they merely exhibitions in retro gaming nostalgia?
The rise in popularity of iOS and Android devices also saw a rise in gaming minimalism. Touch-screen inputs and the nature of mobile gaming creates an environment where quick, simple games get the most attention. The line gets blurry when you begin to differentiate between casual gaming and minimalist design, and that topic requires an entirely different discussion.
Minimalism in Game Development
As game developers, we're always looking for solutions to problems. A straight line is the shortest distance between two points, and minimalism is often the straightest path to follow when designing a game. If you find yourself struggling with a problem, start with a simple solution and work your way up from there. By starting with minimalism, you are forcing yourself to focus on the more important aspects of your gameplay experience.
When your game works using minimal art, sound, and gameplay mechanics, you can slowly begin to integrate more elements, while maintaining that important balance.
The visual style of your game is incredibly important. A single screenshot is often a potential player's only first impression, so it's vital that your game is readable at a glance. Minimalism can both help and hurt you in this regard due to the possibility of abstraction, so be careful.
Below are a few ideas to get you thinking about ways to introduce minimalism into your aesthetic design:
- Use a limited and deliberate color palette. Colors can represent emotions, moods, locations, temperatures, and personalities. Being consistent and tasteful in your choice of color is far more important than using a certain variety of colors.
- Contrast is your friend. When using limited visual assets, the contrast between those assets becomes just as important as the assets themselves. Blank space between items should be used to your advantage when dealing with a limited number of on-screen elements.
- Use simple and recognizable shapes. If you're not familiar with the intricacies of art and design, you should at least learn about the importance of silhouettes. Take the most detailed element in your scene and reduce it to a single color. Is it still readable? By working with limited colors, you can build recognizable scenes that will remain readable as you increase the fidelity of those elements over time.
- Lighting is more important than poly count. A low-poly scene with superb lighting is a beautiful thing.
- Use colors or light to direct players towards a destination rather than HUD elements, maps, and markers.
- Integrate potential HUD elements into the game's environment where possible. Think of a digital readout on the side of a gun to represent ammo, or an inventory system that exists in physical space within a player's backpack rather than in a menu screen.
- High quality animation on a less detailed character is far more valuable than a badly animated photo-realistic character.
- Use real-time lighting to represent time, rather than an on-screen clock.
- Use damage models or other unique environmental solutions to represent health instead of on-screen meters. Think of an enemy moving more slowly or walking with a limp to represent low health.
- Use animated GIFs to advertise your game if your minimalist aesthetic design results in unreadable screenshots.
The way that players interact with your game should be as minimal as possible. Overly-complicated control schemes can scare players away from your game and create frustration. A steep learning curve is often required for specific games, but you should always strive for a streamlined control scheme. Along with input, your individual game mechanics will also benefit from being intuitive. Think about these following points when developing your core gameplay experience:
- Always side with familiarity over uniqueness. This sounds incredibly counter-productive for anyone trying to create something new, but it's true. If you're making something that is in any way familiar to something that already exists, then your players are going to have pre-existing expectations. Don't reinvent the wheel when your players are already familiar with driving.
- Use context-sensitive inputs rather than expansive control schemes. If your player can open chests and doors, the same button should perform both actions. It is up to you, as a designer, to make sure that doors and chests never overlap.
- To expand on the context-sensitive inputs: a single button can be pressed in more than one way. Single tap, double tap, extended hold, rhythmic tap; these are all different ways to press the same button. It may be tempting to take advantage of an entire controller, but try to find ways to limit the number of buttons your player has to press when it makes sense.
- Use timing and rhythm-based solutions to puzzles and conflicts. Players can pick up on these gameplay patterns without having to rely on intrusive instructions or explanations.
- Force players to learn through experimentation directly after discovering a new ability. Without relying on text boxes and tutorials, you can immediately require the use of the ability to solve a problem before the player can continue. Then, as the designer, it's your job to make sure that this ability remains relevant throughout the rest of the game so that the player doesn't forget about it.
- Give your players a reason to not press a button. If shooting endlessly down a hallway is a solution, then not shooting endlessly down a different hallway can be another solution. Instead of adding new gameplay mechanics, think of ways to temporarily remove existing mechanics to add new gameplay experiences.
- Avoid redundancies. Giving players a variety of choices is usually a good thing, but make sure that a highly preferred choice doesn't create obsolete solutions. For example, a jet pack power-up will make your grappling hook and double jump power-ups useless. When one solution is obviously superior, the other solutions immediately become pointless and excessive. If you have multiple solutions, make sure that they each provide a unique and valuable reward.
As a narrative designer, it is your duty to direct and control the flow of a game's story. Depending on the type of story being told, minimalism may or may not be a useful solution. Minimalistic narrative design requires that significant portions of a game's story be told through gameplay mechanics, art design, level design, and other methods that may be out of the writer's hands. Narrative designers have to ensure that every element of a game comes together to tell the right story, requiring them to understand multiple aspects of the game development process.
Here are some tips for approaching narrative design from a minimalist standpoint:
- Avoid extensive exposition. Instead of starting the game with a voice-over, cut scene, or text crawl, put the player in an interactive role. Set the scene with mood and atmosphere rather than words. Introduce characters with actions rather than biographies.
- Value exploration over explanation. Reward players for exploring your world rather than burdening them with excessive pages of lore and back story.
- Avoid optional collectibles that explain crucial details of your world's history. Find ways to implement this information into gameplay rather than audio files.
- Silence can be just as valuable as conversation. Use body language and facial expressions to express feelings when possible.
- Make the player ask questions and don't be afraid to never answer them. If every detail of a game is laid out for the player to discover, then the game has a finite depth. Mysteries and the unknown represent areas that have never been explored and will exist in the minds of players long after they put the controller down.
- Complex character progression can be the focus within an incredibly simple plot. Remember that minimalism can be used as a contrast between two things to create a deceptively deep experience.
The topic of minimalism in game design is deep, complex, and always evolving. The next time you play a game, think about how it could be more or less complicated. Study the game's art and try to think of ways to make it more simple while still maintaining its original form. Pay attention to the "empty" areas. Listen to the silence between important moments. Instead of focusing on the obvious, shift your attention to the things that have been minimized.
Games are infinitely complicated, and it can be tempting to dive into that infinite depth in search of solutions. But as with many of life's problems, the right solution is sometimes the simplest.