Less Is More

Remember the trailer we posted for El Shaddai? Now, at the time, I couldn’t exactly tell what was gameplay and what was a cinematic. Now, I realize why: there was no HUD that cried out “THIS IS GAMEPLAY FOOTAGE,” and so I had no way of discerning what was what. In doing so, El Shaddai encourages players to appreciate its phantasmagoria–much in the same way Child of Eden, and before it, Rez asked players to. Realizing this, I had another elucidation: this is a perfect marriage, at least, conceptually, of form and function. Your focus will be on both the gameplay and this itself tied into the game’s complex visual narrative.

In this way it reminds me much of the cell-shaded Prince of Persia. Most people didn’t appreciate this title, thinking it to be too easy because death was not possible. I always felt as if the difficulty and challenge weren’t the point, though–enjoyment and appreciation were. The fact that Elika saved you after every fall allowed you to focus on the things that mattered. To experience the perfection of the Prince’s movement, from platforming to the slick and rewarding combat. Not to mention the silent, subtle beauty of the graphics themselves. I savored every moment of it–it had nothing to do with how easily I could kill that enemy (pretty easily) or how obvious getting to the platform was (pretty obvious). It was the contemplation that happened when you so told the Prince to dodge, or when you comboed with Elika in slow motion. I feel as if I should be using a Tim Rogers word here, because it’s definitely some form of friction. A swish, perhaps, or even just sticky friction. Then again, a lot of Tim’s frictionary refers to very similar feelings. And guess what? Prince of Persia barely had a HUD on it. The game itself got out of the way…of itself. You’re focusing on the Prince now.

If you’re not getting it now, I’m big on the visuals. I can forgive a game for having an uninteresting traditional plot–that is, what you are told in dialogue and in cutscenes–if it tells me a complex story visually. This isn’t to say I don’t appreciate a well-written plot, though. I’m just not deluded to think it completely boils down to narrative over graphics, especially when I can have them both, or when the visuals tackle the challenge of telling you the story. And who am I to deny myself that captivation, really? I recognize that we are primarily visual creatures. And so when I stand in awe in Uncharted 2, it all just clicks. This is a living, breathing world. I’m standing in it. My shirt gets wet when I roll in the water. The snowstorm acknowledges my presence with footsteps which slowly fade away in the wind. You don’t have to explain it to me, because I just innately understand it. There’s nothing to be said.

I’ve gone on record before regarding my huge disconnect when playing Red Dead Redemption. It’s fun. It has an interesting plot. But you’re spending 95% of your time traversing the barren landscape. I know they want me to appreciate this, but it just doesn’t work. I’ve got a magical GPS on my screen. This is a relic of the unruly, in your face GTA legacy–not the quiet and contemplative world of bygone cowboys. This aside, I’m not sure I can get over the fact that I’m so aware of what I’m doing when I’m playing this game.

It’s not enough to have the state of the art visuals–that’s not what I want, that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m seeing is not the point. What I see has to tell me a story beyond itself. It has to transfer me someplace else, that intersection between imagination and feeling. It has to have its own friction, if you will.


  1. Fernando Cordeiro

    I take my Donkey Kong Country out and read the manual.

    “Game Screen

    Where’s the score bar? Life meter? Speedometer? Scrolled off the screen, where they belong, that’s where! When you do collect bananas, an extra life, or other goodies, the indicator symbol will momentarily scroll onto the screen.”

    That was 9frickin4!

    More than 10 years later and people praise Dead Space because they managed to hide the friggin HUD. Was everyone sleeping in 94? Besides, this is ergonomy 101 (btw, if you develop games and want some guy that knows his human factor skills, hire me – my fees are low):
    1- only show stuff when such knowledge is necessary
    2- if you are showing some kind of meter, show it in proximity to what is being measured

    Heavy Rain does that wonderfully. Other recent clean games like that are Mirror’s Edge, Portal, Shadow of Colossus, the entire Silent Hill series and most of the older resident Evil games.

    I really disliked the new Prince of Persia, btw. I feel Assassin’s Creed is the true evolution of that series.

    • The new prince of persia is not the one that I just described..that one is now the old one! ๐Ÿ˜›

      The thing is, we’re not just talking about getting rid of the HUD here…we’re talking about how in these games, taking away the HUD lets you focus on the ‘point’. In Dead space, having the HUD be “invisible” allowed you to take in the creepy atmosphere and focus more on the subtle details which would jump out at you because the game likes you throw things out of a dark corner. They’re all dark corners! It also adds a minimalist feel and in a way, absorbing that in gives you a closer understanding of how Isaac goes insane. You can’t not focus on that.

      in DK its just elegant design, which is is awesome in terms of UI alone but doesn’t neccesarily perform a function

      edit: you’ve played heavy rain? i thought you didn’t have a ps3?

  2. Fernando Cordeiro

    You don’t need to play Heavy Rain, Pat! You watch it at youtube ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • I don’t think I’d watch any playthrough on youtube on anything unless I’m 100 percent sure I won’t play it–but, if I won’t play it, why am I interested in watching it? ๐Ÿ˜›

      • Fernando Cordeiro

        Well, one thing is not playing. Another is wanting to play it and see the story. I don’t plan on getting another console, so watching a game with movie pretensions on youtube is economically advantageous!

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