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Opinion: New ways to find freedom in constraint
Opinion: New ways to find freedom in constraint Exclusive
March 20, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

March 20, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Indie, Exclusive, Business/Marketing

It seems like only yesterday that so much of the work of game development was about making the most of limitations -- tricking tech into doing more, handling more, showing more. One of the most interesting side effects of this uncommonly long console cycle is that developers have the leisure to think about experimentation and advancement in ways other than just "more."

Nowhere is this more evident than in the indie space, the fertile crescent of idea genesis that's lucky enough to exist outside of the AAA onward march. Many independent developers, as well as industry veterans who've long been motivated by the desire to experiment and create personal things within their medium, seem increasingly drawn away from the traditional goal of maximization, compelled instead by a return to constraint.

Elected constraint in design has been more and more frequently discussed over the years. For one example, experimental game jammers fell in love with the idea of the one-button gaming experience, whether coincidentally or otherwise, alongside the rise of mobile gaming. One-touch games found success on the platform in an early period that saw many traditional studios stumble by trying to reproduce more traditional control schemes on the iPhone.

Countless indie game success stories have sprung from developers that were curious about what they could create if they deprived themselves of obvious or well-trod communication methods, as in Journey's limbless silence, or if they subverted one traditional expectation, as in Braid's now-famous addition of a time-reverse mechanic to a familiar platformer environment.

But even more recently, ideas of constraint, subversion and experimentation aren't limited to the design environment: They're increasingly being transferred to the hardware and tech itself, and in this movement to embrace more primitive creation platforms and a more timeless, handmade folk aesthetic, we can see game design as a form of creative art more than ever.

One of the biggest examples making waves is the 'folk game' work of Die Gute Fabrik, most notably popular party title J.S. Joust. Using PlayStation Move controllers in ways Sony never could have predicted, the speed-based physical game doesn't even have a screen or a digital interface, and users are encouraged to become the custodians of their own rulesets.

A game like Joust uses tech items and principles of game design simply as a subset of larger, universal and timeless ideas about play. The game design community is full of folks who've always seen video games this way, as an entry on a spectrum that contains outdoor sports, card and board games alike. But increasing embrace of this idea from a creative standpoint seems to be creating this concept of hardware-as-instrument, where tools aren't just conveyances to creation, but integral parts of it.

This means the most expressive design work isn't taking place in the realm of tech horsepower and advances in visual fidelity. In a game like IGF entry Proteus, its thick pixels and rough edges feel alive and intentional.

New York City's indie game community has united around maker culture, weird art and handmade arcade cabinets. Meanwhile in Oakland, Anna Anthropy and Alex Kerfoot's hyper-simple Keep Me Occupied on the OAK-U-TRON arcade cabinet became a tangible icon of the Occupy movement.

And amid all of these creators examining just how many other things they can do with their art than advance tech, there's been a delightful return to game forms where graphics don't matter at all.

One of the most fascinating IGF entrants, Prom Week, was considered for its social simulation engine, an interaction system written in nearly-unprecedented complexity. At GDC earlier this month, its creator joined longtime interactive fiction creator and community leader Emily Short on stage, where both shared their extremely detailed work on lifelike conversation and storytelling systems. Where once text work seemed like an interesting niche, it's begun to develop the unique aura of an art form at last in an age that truly needs it.

In an environment where simple mobile platforms like phones and tablets are thriving, game designers have the opportunity to use classic ideas, like text-based games, to engage audience attentions in new ways.

Look no further than the hearty wallet-vote in favor of Double Fine's Kickstarter adventure game to see evidence that audiences want meaningful work from skilled creators -- and that that concept might take primacy over ideas about what's "advanced" and "modern."

Tech muscle used to be the most important value driving the game industry, but we're now in an age where the creator can thrive.

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Jonathan Jennings
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playing a game like Journey It just reinforces my belief that ultimately users want an experience and not just one catered to them or built to catch as many fish as possible . As a gamer what I want is a game that draws me into its world , allows me to buy into its reality , and allows me to enjoy what the game itself has to offer. it reminds me of that old adage " the jack of all trades is master of none " the game that tries to appeal on every level to every taste doesn't come off incredibly successful in any of them .

I think what the minimalist approach signifies is truly crafting an experience not to push boundaries or present itself as a technical marvel but creating a game that achieves a tighter more directed experience and as I said Journey is an excellent example of that . A game that was so intentionally crafted and developed it leads to a magical experience that becomes truly a world of its own . that is what makes me love gaming and that is why i am a gamer those experiences that take me to another land be it round 5 in a boxing match for the world title or across the expansive lonely desert presented in journey .

Very exciting and an example of developer-driven developement i hope takes hold versus developing experiences around the expectations and demands of fans . I definitely feel like Demon's souls and Journey got that right ..

Bisse Mayrakoira
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Incoherent rambling from start to finish. I'll just pick out two of the obvious failures and leave the rest for someone else to point out.

Minimal control schemes on the deluge of bad touchscreen games of late are not "elected constraint", but the inevitable result of cramming fast action games with discrete inputs on a platform unsuited for them, in order to extract money from a lowest common denominator audience with minimal development costs. This is about as far from innovation as you can get. We had minimal controls three decades ago, only they were better due to being physical.

Minimalist graphics on PC indies are likewise not "elected constraint" but their only option. What else are you going to do with no budget?