Back to Basics

Without meaning to, I’ve recently played a string of games that all embrace some sort of “back to basics” philosophy. Some approach it from a visual perspective, others pare down their systems, yet they all distill certain essential qualities of their respective genres. I often feel like many of the games that I play these days are of the “‘X’ meets ‘Y’ meets ‘Z'” variety. Mash-ups and complex systems definitely have their place, but I find stripping away the accoutrements in certain games is a helpful reminder of what makes their genres enjoyable.

Thomas Was Alone

Thomas Was Alone is a platformer reduced to the core elements of platforming. In the game, you control shapes and move them through courses made of other shapes. Without any power-ups or environmental art, there is very little to distract from the basic mechanics of movement. You soon notice exactly how fast your character moves and exactly how far off a ledge you can hang. The game demands a high amount of precision, but it feels fair since the environment makes it easy to see the game’s core rules. I soon became aware that my the neutral zone on my 360 controller was drifting to the right, something that would have gone unnoticed in a less mechanically precise or animation-intensive game.

Ultimately, this combination of sparse art and precise movement ties in with the game’s equally minimalistic story. Delivered as a narrative voiceover punctuated by music, Thomas Was Alone‘s script somehow makes 2D blocks feel like fully-fledged characters. Each of them goes through simple personal victories and defeats that are meaningful not because the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance, but because they are written in a way that inspires empathy. Like Claire, a blue block who can’t jump high but has the power to swim, we’ve all had to face our own shortcomings and strengths. It’s a universal human story that fits alongside one of video games’ universal mechanical stories: jump from one platform to the next.

Dive Kick

The wacky characters in Dive Kick give it a very different tone than Thomas Was Alone, but its adherence to basic, precise movements offer a similar lesson in boiling down the essence of a genre.

It’s easy, though, to see the game as a parody of the genre. You play Divekick with two buttons. One lets you jump, the other lets you kick towards your opponent. A single hit ends the round, and all the characters are either ridiculously cartoonish or fighting game community jokes (sometimes both).

Divekick is funny, but it’s also smart. It strips away all the baroque features that have grown around fighting games over the years and exposes the basic tactics behind high-level play. Underneath the layers of multi-hit combos, arcane special moves, and stat-boosting items, fighting games are about positioning, timing, and psychology. Going beyond button mashing means controlling space and understanding what your opponent will do. With Divekick’s limited move set and sudden-death dynamics, you are forced to focus on these basic tenets during every second of every round. There is no room for sloppiness or half-hearted tries, as you have no health to waste and very few methods of attack. Without all the detail, you’re left to focus on the the core of any match up.

Saint’s Row: The Third

Sain’t Row: The Third differs quite a bit from the two other games I mentioned. It certainly doesn’t eschew modern trappings. Mini-games, ability upgrades, and shooting/driving/flying action abound. Instead of stripping away these things, Saint’s Row highlights them, thereby emphasizing one of the basic tenets of open-world games. They can be extremely silly.

The beauty of a sandbox is the potential to test things out without having to worry about the consequences. In Saint’s Row, every upgrade makes pushing the boundaries of the world easier by giving you more ammo, more resistance to damage, and more ridiculous abilities. There’s no pretense of a morality system and no mention of any long term consequences. You’re encouraged to have as much stupid fun as possible. Even the in-game bonuses reward this behavior by awarding points for driving on two wheels or up the wrong side of the road.

Whereas Rockstar seems intent on shedding it’s formerly zany approach to GTA, Saint’s Row has gone in the opposite direction. Instead of trying to emulate the real world and work on cinematic characters, Saint’s Row celebrates the absurdity of even attempting such a task. We all know the physics system will break at some point, so why not lean into it by creating a mini-game in which you try to ragdoll off of as many cars as possible? After that, why not fly a jet up as high as the world geometry will let you and then try to parachute your way into a building? The basic point of having an open world is to explore its boundaries, and Saint’s Row: The Third lets you do this in the most spectacular ways possible.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with mash-ups and genre combinations. Borrowing and synthesizing different mechanical elements often provides great results (see: any/all action games that have RPG stat-progression systems). However, it’s still refreshing to play games that highlight the core strengths of their systems, as they show us what’s important to retain as we continue to mix things together.