Nordic 2012: Fez's Phil Fish on where games fit between art and design
Dieter Rams' 10 principles of good design have long since been an inspiration for designers everywhere. But how do they relate to video game design? How does video game design relate to other forms of design? What can video games learn from industrial design, graphic design or fashion design? What is design? What is good design?
"Design is a plan, a blueprint. To design is to enact that plan. Design is a process, a deliberate and calculated process," stated Fez co-creator Phil Fish stated in the beginning of his talk on Friday at the Nordic Game Conference.
"Design is problem solving, an attempt to fulfill a need in the most efficient way possible. We need shelter, so we design houses. We need to be clothed, so we, well, design clothes."
"But why do we design video games?" Fish questioned. "Do we design them to be entertained? Enlightened? Educated?"
Fish proceeded to expound on the differences and similarities between design and art. "Is design art? Is art design? Kind of, but also no. Both are acts of creation, but one is concerned with function and the other is concerned with form. Art is concerned with the heart while design is concerned with the brain."
He explained that video games existed in the middle of the spectrum that stretched between art and design. "In the middle, you find things like films and video games: big technical things that can only be achieved between art and design."
While he acknowledged the fact that certain video games can be art, Fish was quick to observe that all video games require design. "Every video game ever was designed; there's no way around it."
"And this is what I'm interested in: video games as design."
Fish went on to name the legendary designers that had influenced him: Saul Bass, Massimo Vignelli, Charles & Ray Eames and Dieter Rams. After reciting Dieter's well-known 10 Principles of Good Design, Fish spoke how he had been influenced by a talk Ico director Fumito Ueda conducted at the Game Design Conference. "In his talk, Ueda talked about his process, a process that he eventually called 'design by subtraction'."
"He explained that in earlier versions, the game had been much busier and less focused. He went on to talk about elements that did not make it into the game, elements like villagers, human enemies and robots that shot lasers from their eye," Fish explained.
"They were all fully working, playable features in the game but Ueda realized that they made games unfocused. As such, he chose to concentrate on the most important focus of the game and to remove what may detract from the core experience. He worked on increasing immersion and reducing friction."
"Eventually, all that was left was a boy, a girl and a castle."
Ueda's focus on simplicity and streamlined design, a philosophy that would later be termed 'design by subtraction', was the catalyst for changes in Fez. "Empowered by the fact that Ico turned out pretty awesome, I decided to take a shot at doing the same thing."
"Does it have anything to do with rotational platforming and metamystery? No? Cut it."
Fish called the process 'addictive'. "Every time I removed a feature, it got better. it became more streamlined, more focused, more pure. As an added bonus, every time I removed a feature of the game, it became one less thing to worry about."
He made an example out of the concept of health in Fez. "The idea was that you would collect hearts to add to little heart icons on top of the screen. I was primarily attached to the iconography of hearts on the top of the screen. I kinda wanted it to be like Zelda. However, the problem was there were neither lives nor a penalty for death in Fez. And so, we cut it off."
According to Fish, the same was done to the idea of levels with variable gravity, a character who would send postcards to the protagonist and the concept of water that could be used in various physics puzzles. "All these things that were in the game that we thought we were going to ship were unnecessary and detracted from the game."
Towards the end, he simply stated, to considerable applause. "What I'm trying to say is: keep it simple, stupid."