Mechanical Marrow: The Strength of Simple Games

Early this month, Ben Serviss wrote about the effective subtext in Particle Mace (Particle Mace: The Space Game About Selflessness”, Dash Jump, 9 January 2014). In his article, Serviss argues that in being simplified to a single mechanic (avoid environmental dangers), Particle Mace emphasizes an awareness of the game’s environment, not on the player’s avatar, and from that awareness emerges a “meditative focus of watching everything and nothing, being everywhere and nowhere, in order to align all of the disparate elements making demands on the player’s attention.”

Particle Mace and Serviss’s analysis of it point to an interesting phenomenon that occurs in games stripped down to their most basic parts. G. Christopher Williams and Nick Dinicola have discussed video game minimalism on PopMatters in the past (“The Moving Pixels Podcast Explores Minimalism in Video Games”, PopMatters, 13 May 2013). The more basic a player’s interactions with a game, the more meaningful those interactions become. In a game distilled to just one or two kinds of interaction, everything has weight and significance.

In both Alpaca Run and A Mother in Festerwood, the player’s impact on the game is limited to the simplest kinds of control of their avatar’s movement. In Alpaca Run, Ingrid the Alpaca runs automatically, and the player can jump or not jump to avoid obstacles. Furthermore, unlike The Impossible Game, platforms are relatively easy to avoid and falling into a pit only causes Ingrid to fall from the sky back into place. There is no jarring interruption. Death (if it can be called that) is meaningless. The experience is just the player’s guided exploration through pretty pictures and a fun song.

Likewise, A Mother in Festerwood asks the player to guide their avatar — a mother raising an RPG hero — around a homestead while their child roams around their property getting older. The only interaction that the player has with the game is in making contact with the child to send them closer to home or in letting them roam on their own. The farther the player’s character is from the child the more experience he’ll gain and the stronger he’ll become, but if he leaves too soon or heads off in the wrong direction, the more likely he’ll end up getting killed by the monsters roaming the forest.

Both of these games are able to create wildly different feelings based on very basic movement mechanics. Ingrid’s joyful romp through infinity is pleasant. Jumping up and down, collecting apples (or not) and avoiding pitfalls (or not) just feels fun. There’s a paradoxical freedom in being limited to a single possible mechanic. There’s no failure state, so play is not restricted to mastering skilled button pushes. Instead, the player can do whatever they want while Ingrid’s journey leads her to glorious outer space alpaca godhood. The single jumping mechanic ends up feeling empowering and pleasant when meshed with the cute music and images.

It is a game that harkens back to early console platformers that were based on the simple pleasure of traversing a colorful level. At the same time, though, Alpaca Run lifts the prohibitive difficulty curve and even the practice required to navigate most games like it. Listening to the lyrics, coupled with the abruptly changing colorful scenery, it’s clear that nothing can stop Ingrid on her journey across time and space. Motion is Ingrid’s goal, and the player is invited to participate in it. It’s fun to be welcomed on her journey, and it’s meaningful that the player can only help her.

Conversely, the restrictions placed on the player in A Mother in Festerwood create an opposite but equally powerful feeling. In the game, the player must watch the tiny sprite of their child roam around a cottage in Festerwood. As noted, if the player stays near the child, then he won’t be able to leave the property lines and enter the outer forest filled with monsters. However, the more space the player gives the tyke, the faster he’ll gain experience points and level up. The older the child gets, the farther he’ll wander and the faster he’ll go. Eventually, the player won’t be able to keep up with him, and he’ll end up leaving the player’s range of movement. At that point, all the player can do is hope that they’ve set him on the right path and prepared him enough to survive it.

Again, by limiting the player’s influence over the game to a single mechanic (move in the child’s way to protect him, move out of his way to let him get stronger), there’s no room for distraction. For most of the game the player’s input is totally meaningless: by the time the child has left the cottage, he very likely won’t return until he’s killed or he’s satisfied enough with his adventure to return at the age of 25. But every interaction that offset’s the child’s behavior is packed with significance. Furthermore, the game adopts a unique tension by the time the player’s role in it is finished. Studying the child’s adventure from too great a distance to be of any help retroactively forces the player to obsess over every prior decision and strategy.

Indeed, that’s the point of the game. As an allegory of parenthood set in a prototypical low-bit RPG, it compresses all of child rearing into a single constant decision: do I let my child grow on their own or do I protect them from the world? There isn’t a right answer, and at a point, all one can do is ruminate on their choices.

Games like Alpaca Run and A Mother in Festerwood are powerful because of their simplicity. There are no superfluous tasks to distract from the feelings they are trying to convey and the muted interactions that do exist reinforce their aesthetic. They illustrate the power of player experience not by giving them things to do, but by reducing their influence to a single act with limited impact on the game.