Critical Mess 2 of 3: Videogame Genesis & Reduction

Previously on ‘Critical Mess’: We talked about the need to master crawling before you try to sprint, let alone walk. I attempted to label the importance of making games that are more simple when you’re still learning how to make them. In this part of the trilogy we’ll look at a specific example of this reductionist approach and how, with more than 25 years of hindsight, it is safe to say that the gamble has paid off… despite now maybe needing something or someone to breathe new life into it, to add to or revise its core values.

The last thing we discussed was how if you look at the creation of The Legend of Zelda, and more specifically at what Shigeru Miyamoto defined as his key influences in creating the first Zelda titles, you can identify the franchise’s core values, or its ‘essence’, if you like.

The assumed 'Zelda Genesis' theory. Please note, I have never heard it called this before, but it does have a nice ring to it.

Miyamoto wanted to create an experience that evoked his childhood fascination of exploring the world around him. From that childlike vantage point, he thought about what resonated with him particularly  — and indeed with other children  — during that time of their life. As children we dream of being powerful, of seeing and doing incredible things, of being an adult before our time (since adults get to do all the cool things we see on TV, and can afford the really cool toys), and most importantly, as children we openly believe in things.

Using these ideas, Miyamoto and his team had to identify how to best express these concepts given the limits of the technology on offer: the humble Nintendo Entertainment System, more commonly called the NES (or in Japan, the Famicom, a portmanteau of ‘Family Computer’, much like how Pokémon is a portmanteau of ‘Pocket Monsters’). These limitations enforced boundaries that surrounded the core idea, defining the possibilities open to Miyamoto in expressing his own personal (and meaningful) fairy tale.

If you don't know who the middle fella is, shame on you. If you don't know who the other gents are, you're missing out, in my opinion.

The other main boundary surrounding this concept was the ‘newness’ of videogames in general. While the NES was far from the first home console released, it was among the first globally successful home consoles released following the video games crash of the early 1980s1. With this came a new set of expectations and conventions that built upon then-current videogame trends, for instance:

  1. Pick up shiny objects for a reward (Mario collected coins, Link collected rupees),
  2. Walk into an item to pick it up (the characters couldn’t visibly reach for or consume items)
  3. When at full power, you can make mistakes before you lose a life (enemies can hit you, but at a cost)

…and other such videogame fundamentals that we take for granted now.

When you look at older trail-blazing games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, you see how they contain a core essence; a small number of fundamental ideas and values, that, through the original games’ development, were built upon to create a truly compelling and memorable experience, despite such relatively simple technology and input mechanisms.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

Using this method of trying to identify a game’s core, the essence of Zelda, then, is discovery (both self-discovery and literal explorative discovery), child-like wonder, mastering your environment and all the hazards it brings. With Zelda celebrating its 25th birthday this year, maybe Miyamoto was on to something after all.

The Gilo 'Game Design Distillation' Theory / Recipe! Take one idea, filter it through your available resources, refine it until ready to serve. Voila!

Going back to those aspiring game designers I’m so fond of (and the talk we have after they show me the work they’re the most proud of), when I explain my belief that simplicity is one of the driving factors of videogame innovation (“Difficult situations inspire ingenious solutions“) we have as long a talk as we both have time for, either in groups or individually where, without the time pressure, they begin to consider what their game or game idea is about, in a thematic sense. If they find the process difficult, that’s fine. Often the answer to that question isn’t 100% known until a professionally developed game is ready to be manufactured, its essence changing (sometimes quite distinctly) over the course of development due to a plethora of possible reasons, whether artistic, budgetary, or due to some other factor.

At this stage in their career, these aspiring designers shouldn’t necessarily have such answers; as a Junior Designer myself (with my eyes on the prize nonetheless), this is often something I challenge myself to think about and get in the habit of practising, since it doesn’t always come naturally. I think I’m only starting to get the hang of this concept now, and I’ve had the benefit of loving this industry for as long as I can remember, am privileged enough to work in it and get to write for the bestest, most sexy, GMA-nominated website in the known uni—

Sorry… going a little off-topic there!

It's good to talk

However, at least by thinking about such things before beginning and while developing a project, it enables you to have a goal in mind. That goal will change over the course of development, sometime a little and sometimes a lot. That’s just one reason it’s called games development and not games sculpting, or games boiling-down, for instance. But to have a starting point based on a particular theme or ‘essence’ is a useful tool.

But once again, that’s something we’ll look at in more detail in Part 3 of this Critical Mess trilogy. Once again, if you’ve got a question, comment or complaint, please leave it below. You never know, I might address your comment in the next Critical Mess instalment. After all, it is better for a person to ask than to always wonder why no-one just told them.

1__All signs are pointing towards the videogames crash being something we may be heading toward once again, what with the oversaturation of the current videogame market and the death of the middle-tier game.





3 responses to “Critical Mess 2 of 3: Videogame Genesis & Reduction”

  1. Branstar avatar

    RE: point 1 – are you serious? There is no comparison between the video games market of the early 1980’s and now. For starters, the games market now includes non-dedicated platforms that are increasingly ubiquitous like mobile, TV and Facebook. There are quality control issues with the likes of the AppStore, but since it costs virtually nothing to publish a digital title failures aren’t taking up valuable shelf space and only the development cost is at risk. The major consoles will move increasingly towards digital for small to medium titles with the premium titles following suit eventually as well.

    There may be change ahead, but to suggest there’ll be a crash is laughable.

  2. Giles avatar

    Fair enough — perhaps using the term ‘crash’ is a bit strong, though it did get a reaction.

    First up, note that I said “signs are pointing towards the videogames crash being something we may be heading toward once again”. I’m not saying it is going to happen, but it would be foolish to deny it as a possibility, however slim that possibility may be.

    Secondly, I genuinely think that the games industry is in need of a reboot, that it is awkwardly and stubbornly transitioning to find ways to sustain itself in the face of adversity, and that until we – as an industry of game-makers and game-players – find common, mutually-beneficial ground that we can all agree on, we could be heading towards a crisis point. Could be, not ‘definitely are’.

    In fact Branstar, your comment has caused me to think so much about this matter that I’m going to reply via the medium of a blog. I hope that doesn’t sound like a cop-out, but instead treat it as a thank you for such a good and strong comment — keep them coming! ^_^

  3. Branstar avatar

    I’m flattered and look forward to reading the blog 🙂

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