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Minimalism in Game Narrative: Can we say more by talking less?
by Llaura Mcgee on 05/17/13 04:32:00 pm   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This article is cross-posted from my personal website:

With Ludum Dare 26 coming to a close (my own minimalist entry) I thought this an apt time to post and would love to hear any thoughts.

Suibokuga - Shek Ho (2007)

Writing in computer games is often criticised; the narrative of most contemporary mainstream titles is expositional, obvious and largely redundant. I argue that we shouldn't worry about ensuring every player knows perfectly what is happening at every moment. Instead that by leaving purposeful but known gaps and ambiguity we can give a player's imagination room to breathe and engage with the material as they do with the game itself, and thus create stronger experiences.

First we will look at art movements and theories in other media, such as Hemingway’s ‘Iceberg Theory’ and ‘Pure Cinema’, to demonstrate the power minimalist techniques can have. Secondly we apply these minimalist concepts to the allure of ‘retro’ games and explain why many contemporary games such as ‘A Slow Year’ have come to draw on those aesthetics again. Thirdly we look at minimalist techniques which are already pervasive in many modern titles such as the fragmented delivery of ‘Dear Esther’ or the embedded narrative of ‘Amnesia: The Dark Descent’. Finally to conclude the author looks at why such techniques may not always appeal, and why experimental games and fostering audiences for them are vital for the health of the industry.

1. Introduction
The human mind is a pattern finding machine. We live to join the dots between things, intentional connections or not. All media interacts with the human imagination in this way at some level, and great authors in many disciplines have learned to leverage this cognitive interaction. The less they do or tell and the more the imagination of the audience unconsciously engages then the more powerful the experience. 'Less is more' as architect Mies van der Rohe might have said. However we live in an age where the imagination is undervalued and underused. It is being increasingly side-lined and subsumed under a sea of constant media barrage, easy entertainment, familiar franchise exploitation and over explanation.

In an environment where game design as extensive play-testing and analytics is de rigueur, respecting the audience's ability to think, not worrying about losing their complete attention for a second and ultimately giving more power back to them, is a brave move. Can it also be an effective and emotive one?

What do we mean by minimalism with respect to game writing? This essentially means expressing as much through as little as possible, and potentially being truer and more evocative in the process. For example this may be as simple the removal of any superfluous storytelling that can be understood implicitly or explicitly by the player through playing the game itself. Minimalist game writing subverts traditional exposition, engages the player’s mind, and most importantly respects and challenges their ability to understand narrative and meaning as it is presented.

2. Minimalism throughout media
There is much for contemporary game designers to learn from older mediums, outside of solely the bombast of Hollywood, and in particular for this paper how to do a lot with very little. ‘Pure Cinema’ is interesting for its attempt to try and convey meaning and emotion without use of character or plot and instead only pure cinematic techniques. Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film ‘Man with a movie camera’ [18] is a great example of this. In ‘The Language of New Media’ [12] Lev Manovich investigates digital media through the lens of this seminal film and one important point he makes which bears examination in the context of this paper is how the film turns “special effects” into meaningful expression. By imposing each specific technique in each specific new context or scene Vertov raises these otherwise mechanical actions to a level of implicit meaning.

Vertov, Dziga. ‘Man With a Movie Camera’ (1929)

Interestingly throughout the film he refuses to rest or settle on a limited set of actions which could be framed and learned as a static expressive language. An example of a shorthand language from another medium may be a minor chord evoking melancholy: a relationship which is not an innate universal truth and rather a learned association in Western culture [17]. The film’s continuous restlessness speaks to both unending possibilities for evocative cinematic metaphors but also the need for an audience to actively engage with and contemplate material rather than relying on trained expectations. Another film which attempts to minimalize narrative as much as possible and speak directly to the viewer implicitly through intuited experiences of the cinematic is ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ [7]. Kubrick consciously rejected the, by that time, well-defined cinematic language in favour of a more ambiguous approach. However it also eschewed the exuberant experimentation of Vertov and instead concentrates on the singular power of the image and how it can be heightened by sound and careful editing. The slow takes and deliberate scenes were an intentional act by Kubrick in order to provide space for the audience’s mind to think and become absorbed in the film.

“…it’s essentially a non-verbal experience. It attempts to communicate more to the subconscious and to the feelings than it does to the intellect… Those who won’t believe their eyes won’t be able to appreciate this film.” – Stanley Kubrick [10]

Indeed there is a long history of minimalist movements, such as the Japanese tradition of Ma which emphasizes what you perceive from the gaps and spaces. Often a period of minimalism and stripping back will come from artists consciously or unconsciously revolting against an extravagant status quo. For example Serialist composed shunned any traces of the Romantic era before Minimalism developed shunning Serialism and the highly theoretical music of the preceding decades [15]. In the art world representational painting reached its peak in the 19th century before first Expressionism and then subsequent increasingly abstract art styles developed and in the 1960's Minimalism, a reaction against this abstract expressionism. One of the key drives of Modernism across the art world was a rejection of realism in favour of these more abstracted forms. This left much more to the viewer to interpret whether consciously, or on an unconscious level such as with the immediate and visceral works of Rothko.

Such art movements are far from reserved to the past century however. Vanitas, associated with Northern Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, is an example of another art movement which tried to express as much meaning with as little as possible [14]. These were typical still-life paintings that, in the fashion of a Memento Mori, hid elements and symbols which illustrate the transience and decay of life: from the obvious such as hidden skulls to the more subtle such as rotting fruit or dying plants. To most these symbols wouldn’t be explicit and the image would remain an innocent painting, but to others who knew what they were looking for the macabre commentary was stark. As such what may be an innocent picture to many may in fact include many symbols of death and decay. This movement directly inspired a mobile interactive application by Tale of Tales of the same name. It explored these themes through a matchbox which when opened and shut would reveal different objects and give room for contemplation, these would include macabre objects such as bird skulls and the objects would continue to become decayed the more you used the app. Minimalist ideals and works can be created with multimedia and interactive technologies.

"Hemingway called it the Iceberg Theory. The art of implication. Just give people the little pieces they need to imagine up the other half of the game. It makes [the player] more invested and it makes your work more adaptable and more rich." - Adam Saltsman [19]

William Bradford

In contemporary game design one developer who can be seen to be at the forefront of a new minimalism is Adam Saltsman. This quote from an interview is one explanation he offers to the popularity of Minecraft and his own hit game, Canabalt. Ernest Hemingway was famed for his minimalist approach to narrative and his stories thrived through conscious omission of important details. In his essay ‘The Art of the Short Story’ he talks about his ‘Iceberg Theory’ [20], that the more you can omit, but still know, about your story then the stronger and more evocative it will become. As such his stories contain no exposition and often a character’s thoughts can only be read through his words and actions as they exist in the reader’s mind. The characters often have a long history and past but the narrative is only ever concerned with what is happening in the present, often beginning and ending abruptly. All other details inform the dialog and story naturally or do not appear at all.

For example the short story “Hills like White Elephants” [21] can be simply seen as a harmless conversation between two people at a train station. However, just beneath the surface they are obliquely discussing an abortion and parting ways.  It is up to the reader to read into the unstated tension, their thoughts about the subject at hand and their thoughts about each other. In this way the storytelling can be much natural and evocative. This minimalism extends to his writing style as well which features few poetic flourishes and consists largely of dialog, anything else in his eyes is simply unnecessary to telling the story. Echoing the earlier quote by Stanley Kubrick, Hemingway believed words only confused the meaning of what he was trying to express and that subtext could always communicate a truer picture.

3. Minimalist narrative structure and ‘retro’ games:
Videogames have always been dependent on the technology they were built for and in the very early days of the medium these constraints were particularly self-evident, whether through limited colour palettes, low resolutions or crude sound. Due to both the limited memory available to the developer and the arcade roots of the industry plot was kept to a bare minimum if there at all and narrative cues primarily existed to give context. Often this narrative would be passed onto the game materials such as the manual, box-art or arcade cabinets and usually consisted of little more than a premise in which the gameplay existed. This meant that often only in the player’s mind were the events of the game contextualised within a grander story structure. This made the experience a personal one: discussions about games would be dominated by first person accounts.

RealSports Tennis - Atari (1983)

The highly abstract visuals communicated the core gameplay ideas and served as a seed to the player’s vision of the game. It’s interesting to examine how pieces of art inspired by these games predominantly reimagines the pixelated sprites as vivid characters in vivid worlds. For example the box art for Atari 2600 games were famed for their gross exaggeration of what players will find when they play. Yet, in fact, the realism of these painted box covers helps players mentally cross the gap between the real world and the representational imagery of the game. [22] Just as a cartoon drawing of a face may engender more empathy  because of its abstract universality when compared to a photo of a stranger [28], so can low resolution pixel art and a minimalist narrative provide seeds to the player to fill the gaps and create whole imaginary worlds. 

“A book read by a thousand different people is a thousand different books” – Andrei Tarkovsky [23]

Most games today have moved far away from this overt minimalist narrative structure. It is interesting to compare the freedom the original Legend of Zelda provided, empowering the players as storytellers, with the latest entry in the franchise, Skyward Sword [24]. I believe these two games which bookend a long running franchise can provide a microcosm of the medium's mainstream development. The NES title featured little exposition besides an opening text crawl introducing the key elements of the story, an antagonist, Ganon, and a princess to be rescued, Zelda. The main character of this game is a blank slate for the player to embody, characterise and name as they see fit, an 'avatar', and they would simply and unceremoniously start in the middle of a field. It is largely up to the player to make this experience personal and powerful and full of event. As we are naturally drawn to storytelling, it is easy to do so.

By the time the series reached the latest installment, Skyward Sword, a lot had changed. The single world to be explored as the player saw fit has been replaced by separate, disconnected areas, just as player storytelling was replaced with a meticulously plotted narrative that players must follow explicitly in order to beat the game. Instead of sparse text and openess players now found innumerable dialog boxes. Nintendo own this story not the player and if they try to add any personal spice they stand to be corrected at any moment or at least face the cognitive dissonance intimately familiar to players of GTA IV. Online debate raising these concerns following Skyward Sword's launch demonstrate the growing dissatisfaction with mainstream game narratives [25].

However one should be careful to consider both games in context of their respective times, the problems of Skyward Sword arguably being the result of an unthinking slide with the technological evolution of the medium through the 90's and a dearth of new influences. The original game's minimalist qualities, like most of its contemporaries, are partly due to the level of computing power available and partly because games at the time were still evolving from their recent arcade ancestors. This brings us to a key distinction between the minimal narrative of most retro videogames and the minimalist works found in other mediums, intention. While the Legend of Zelda was inspired by and evokes experiences many can relate to, that is Miyamoto’s childhood spent exploring the woods and countryside around his home, the minimalist qualities weren't chosen to specifically express this. Instead like the form of its contemporaries it was a result of form following function, that being to give simple context to the gameplay.  So is there a reason to make a 'retro' games today?

Over the last five years there has been a resurgence of interest in computer games which emulate the minimalist even crude aesthetic of past videogame consoles. Initially this started with indie developers, such as the title ‘L’Abbaye Des Morts’ [11] which re-envisions 13th century French history in the style of a ZX Spectrum platformer, but soon expanded to large companies such as Capcom who released Megaman 9 in 2008. In this vein it is largely a nostalgiac element. For example Braid leveraged the tropes of platforming games such as Donkey Kong and the original Super Marios Bros. as meta-textual expressions of the game's main themes: memory and regret.

A Slow Year - Ian Bogost (2010)

The resurgence of this aesthetic isn’t solely for nostalgia related purposes however. Few games from the late 70’s can claim to be thematic progenitors to Rod Humble’s experimental game ‘The Marriage’ [26], which maximises coherent expression by eschewing all non-functional aesthetics, or Ian Bogost’s experimental collection of game poems ‘A Slow Year’ [3] developed for the Atari 2600, a console originally released in 1977. Bogost uses the medium of the Atari 2600 as a distinct form of communication, and creates an experience moulded by its limitations and peculiarities. ‘A Slow Year’ is a series of four meditative games representing each season which feature minimal gameplay and no explicit narrative. The games are intended as poems which let the player interpret as they like with few crucial aural, visual and sensual stimuli to encourage a specific line of thought and contemplation in the player. The minimalist approach both reinforces the themes of the game and gives the mind a chance to engage with the material on its own terms. 

4. Minimalist storytelling devices:
One narrative technique conducive to minimalist narratives and that already has a strong history in game writing, particularly amongst games of a Looking Glass lineage such as ‘System Shock’, is the embedded narrative. For example the story of ‘Amnesia: The Dark Descent’ [4] is predominantly communicated through an embedded narrative found in notes and diaries throughout the castle and dungeons as well as the environment design itself. Henry Jenkins creates a strong analogy to detective novels wherein from hints and clues the reader slowly pieces together what has actually happened [6]. In interactive media however the reader is given another dimension to their investigations in their ability to directly interact, explore and discover within the scenes themselves.

Amnesia is worth noting for the ambiguities and conflicting information introduced in its 'found' text. It should be noted that it is precisely the fractured nature of the embedded narrative in these games Amnesia which makes it both minimalist and stimulating to the player. Again the more work the player does mentally the more invested they become. On the other hand while ‘Skyrim’ is full of books on the history of the game's world these most often take the form of exhaustive encyclopaedia which spell out exactly what happened one event after another, with, a few exceptions, little grey area. You could get a complete picture of all historic minutiae if you simply read enough. Dry historical accounts leave little to imagine and with no space for the player to join the dots there is no space for the player to engage.

Dennis Severs' House, 18 Folgate St, London

One highly successful example of embedded narrative is that of Denis Severs' House in central London. Created by Dennis Severs over two decades this unassuming building on Folgate Street is self-described as a "Still-Life Drama" set in the 18th and 19th centuries. What prevents this from being simply a museum reproduction is the attention to detail gone into creating a rich, fictional world for the family that lived there. Notably one of the first things you will notice as you walk around by candelight as that it is as if the occupants just left minutes prior: hot food is on the table, chairs hanging, and even in one instance the calamitous result of a recent skuffle. Each room tells a hundred stories about the inhabitants through every detail such as the letters, paintings or even a broken wine glass on the floor, and each room is generally tailored around one fictional individual. Where it starts to get really interesting is how each floor of the building moves forward a generation and so tells this intricate story of a family through time. This is embedded narrative at its best. Every person who experiences the house it will discover and notice different details and every person will piece together a slightly different story. As it is uniquely theirs, it will be more meaningful than a prescribed text.

The story-telling of Amnesia is interesting to look at the micro-scale as well. Being a very small developer Frictional Games have needed to master the ability to make as little as possible as effective as possible. As a horror title this game thrives on scaring the player with what they imagine rather than what they are actually looking at. In Sweet Anticipation’ David Huron [8] discusses the psychology of how the mind deals with stimuli. Two are of particular note: first the mind’s imagination response which is the ability of the mind to perceive a diluted emotional feeling with regard to what they imagine they might feel if an event were to occur. Secondly the mind also has a tension response which prepares the body for an anticipated event, but, through natural selection, always over compensates and prepares for the worst. However, when the mind doesn’t know what the anticipated event is or when it will occur these emotions can be maintained for long periods of time. This is done through clever sound design as well as narrative and visual cues which convince the player ‘something’ is imminent. This speaks to the power of the imagination in enriching experiences. A game developer can just as powerfully create a feeling with an imagined event as an actual one.

Many experimental games have also experimented with how the player receives the story, prodding the player to both consider the context, how, when, where, but also piece together disparate and fragmented chunks as they see fit. In this way they closely resemble films such as Rashomon or Mulholland Drive in which the audience must wrestle with what they’re shown and reconcile often conflicting or ambiguous material [2]. In Dear Esther the player explores a Hebridean Island and at certain points, in what has in the years since 2008 become an ‘Art-Game’ trope, hears random pieces of cryptic voice overs that bear little relation to what is happening in-game. [13] The loose thematic connections between the dialog and what the player experiences as he moves through the game world create an interesting tension in which to understand the text and what the game is communicating. Thus if the player is engaged their own thoughts and experiences can complete the picture uniquely. Although this is a linear game, it creates a non-linear and polysemic narrative by leveraging the properties of the medium.

Dear Esther - Dan Pinchbeck (2008)

5. The climate for minimalist games: 
Another aspect of Dear Esther which makes it unusual for the contemporary video game landscape is the deliberately slow pace which flies in the face of traditional game design. This pointedly gives the players time to contemplate what is happening with little distraction. One argument against games that might require time and investment from the player to digest is that they are often, bluntly, called ‘slow’ and ‘boring’. However, provided that there is an audience that remains invested in the holistic experience. Dargis and A. O. Scott do not think it is a problem for an audience’s attention to wander from time to time if the artist is stimulating contemplation [16]. Entertainment that seeks to keep everyone’s attention constantly and never let up runs the risk of by always focusing on the immediate being, besides exhausting or one-note, an entirely transient and disposable experience.

We must however recognise there is an element cultural capital, learned and often inherited societal or cultural knowledge [5], which often stands between audiences engaging with ‘difficult’ artistic material. In not only being able to read meaning in minimalist works but more to the matter giving them time and trying to engage. The motto of Denis Sever's House is "Aut Visum Aut Non", you either see or you don't. Just as the works of the Vanitas movement can be dismissed or misunderstood by those not literate in reading them, minimalist games can be as well. That’s not to denigrate their importance, in fact the opposite, they are more essential. For example ‘The Path’ [27] gave Richard Lemarchand the courage that the platforming, combat and essentially ’gameplay’ free Tibetan village of Uncharted 2 could work [9]. It is through creating experimental games developers increase the vocabulary of the medium and foster audiences that can grasp and demand more difficult works, improving the medium as a whole. 

The New World - Terrence Malick (2005)

Great games should endeavour to be thought about when they are not being played. Indeed interactive experiences are particularly adept at doing this: often people relate playing games like Tetris while daydreaming. However games should endeavour to more than lingering muscle memories of mechanical processes. This paper, through looking at the power minimalism can have in other media and through a taste of game specific applications of minimalism whether embedded narratives, abstract art, or fragmented storytelling, proposes that these techniques are one such powerful way to stimulate such thoughts. By giving the player space to think, and interesting material to think about, we can create more mature and more engaging games. Interactive experiences can leave an audience with the lasting questions and ideas any great work can.

[1]   Baker, Carlos, ‘Hemingway: The Writer as Artist’. (1972) Princeton University Press
[2]   Bizzocchi, Jim. ‘Run, Lola, Run - Film as Narrative Database’ (2005) Simon Fraser University
[3]   Bogost, Ian. ‘A Slow Year’ (2010), Open Texture
[4]   Frictional Games, ‘Amnesia: The Dark Descent’ (2010) Frictional Games
[5]   Guillory, John. ‘Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation’ (1995) University Of Chicago Press
[6]   Jenkins, Henry. ‘Game Design as Narrative Architecture’ (2004) Cambridge: MIT Press
[7]   Kubrick, Stanley. ‘2001: A Space Odyssey. (1968) MGM
[8]   Huron, David, ‘Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation’ (2008),  Bradford Books
[9]   Lemarchand, Richard. ‘Beauty and Risk: Why I Love Indie Games’ (2011). Indiecade
[10]   Lobrutto, Vincent, ‘Stanley Kubrick’, Faber and Faber (1998) pg. 277
[11]  Locomalito. ‘L’Abbaye Des Morts’ (2010)
[12] Manovich, Lev, ‘The Language of New Media’ (2001) Cambridge: MIT Press
[13]  Pinchbeck, Dan. ‘Dear Esther’ (2008)
[14] Ravenal, John B., ‘Vanitas: Meditations on Life and Death        in Contemporary Art’ (2004), University of Virginia Press
[15] Ross, Alex. ‘The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century’. (2007)  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
[16] Scott, A. O. ,Dargis. ‘In Defence of the Slow and the Boring’ (2011) The New York Times
[17] Undurraga, Eduardo, Emlem, Nicholas, Gueze, Maximilien, et al. ‘Musical Chord Preference: Cultural or Universal? Data From a Native Amazonian Society’. Tsimane' Amazonian Panel Study Working Paper # 64
[18] Vertov, Dziga. ‘Man With a Movie Camera’ (1929) Soviet Union
[19] Boisvenue, Travis. ‘Of course you have five lives’ (2011) The Happy Medium
[20] Ernest Hemingway ‘The Art of the Short Story’. (1990)  Benson, Jackson. New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Duke University Press.
[21] Ernest Hemingway ‘Men Without Women’ (1927) Charles Scribner's Sons
[22] McCollough, Aarom. ‘4k Formalism: An Interview with Ian Bogost’ (2011) JEP, Volume 14, Issue 2
[23] Andrei Tarkovsky, ‘Sculpting In Time’ (1989) University of Texas Press, pg. 177
[24] Nintendo EAD, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011), Nintendo
[25] Thompson, Tevis. ‘Saving Zelda’ (2012) Creative Commons
[26] Rod Humble, ‘The Marraige’ (2007) GDC
[27] Harvey, Auriea & Samyn, Michaël. ‘The Path’ (2009) Tale of Tales 
[28] Scott McCloud, 'Understanding Comics' (1993)

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