“Nothing is more simple than greatness; indeed, to be simple is to be great.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson, Literary Ethics (1838).
I have discovered a consistent theme in life: greatness and success are tied closely to simplicity and honesty. I was watching Hell’s Kitchen one night, and while Gordon Ramsay was in the middle of choosing one chef’s meal over the other–tirade uncharacteristically in check–my unconscious mind made a sudden and unlikely connection. I had heard similar words before in Esquire’s Handbook of Style. Yes, two disparate fields (cooking vs fashion), with asymmetrical criteria for success, and yet, once reduced, their guiding principles were identical: keep it simple, clean, and well-presented.
Being clever wins you no points in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen, and in fact, likely earns you a classic Gordon tirade. You see, he’s not interested in you being clever, he’s interested in good ingredients, good flavor pairings, and good presentation; and where people get critically confused, he wants them combined with your own touch. He wants you to be familiar, yet creative. To do so, you must be honest.
What I respect most about Ramsay is his understanding that the customers are the true masters; and ultimately, you are not there to be clever, you are there to run a kitchen, a business.
“Every table is a critic table.”
Keep it simple and cook what you know. This is the kind of lesson that is easy to pay lip service, but can be incredibly difficult to execute. He’s not saying to be uncreative, he’s saying that everything you create must be, at the very least, couched in familiarity. It must be grounded. (That’s the simplicity) And then, from this foundation, you give it your own personal voice. (That’s the honesty).
Similar to his words of wisdom are the lessons for fashion. Esquire’s Handbook of Style, sometimes called the little black book, is to men’s fashion what Elements of Style is to grammatical structure: it is to the point, and packed full of practical wisdom. Take this passage on building one’s own personal wardrobe.
“…you should begin with a core of indispensable pieces, a near-universal sartorial foundation. A navy blue suit, gray flannel trousers, a white cotton dress shirt, a fine wool V-neck sweater, black oxford lace-ups, a handful of well-chosen neckties: These are your building blocks. Absolute basics may sound about as interesting as braised tofu for dinner, but basic is not the same thing as anonymous … take your three watchwords–classic, simple, and understated–and think of their mirror images: timeless, long-lasting, recession proof.”
If you cannot see the parallel lessons for video games, then I weep for you. I could quote that entire chapter as proof positive that upper echelons of craft, any craft, share similarities in important principles. Honesty, simplicity, these are key rules that guide the Core of your game.
It is not enough, however, to simply strive for those ideals, you must also avoid their opposites. The obvious antonyms are Complexity and Dishonesty, but those are easy to avoid. They aren’t the wolves in sheep’s clothing. No, the true enemy of Simplicity is Indulgence, and the true enemy of Honesty is Ostentation.
Simplicity vs Indulgence
Being a game designer requires the unceasing appetite of a black hole, as unbounded streams of reference material slam into your grey matter. Myself, I am constantly watching new movies, reading new books, and playing new games. This is not always a pleasant job (I especially dislike playing bad games) but I must, for one often finds a nugget of win trapped in there somewhere. This rampant consumption breeds a catalog of cool that you pull from in time of need. The downside, of course, is that we tend towards indulgent capriciousness.
Indulgence is the unrestrained addition of features, and it is the one true enemy of simplicity. When that little voice in your head says, “wouldn’t it be cool if…”, the indulgent designer acquiesces with no regard for the holistic product. A new feature here, a new enemy there; one more animation here, a few more effects there. An unrepentant reality of this job, of life, is seeing the mistakes of the past through the clarity of experience. Doing so forces you to ask dangerous questions like: do we add more features, do we change our mind, do we redo the work?
Sometimes you go back and fix it, but more often you push on. Would it be cool if the player had a double jump instead of a single jump? Probably, but you’ve already built all the levels around there not being one; do you really want to go back and rebuild all those spaces? A simple example, yes, but the problem with indulgence is that it rarely, if ever, seems like indulgence. That’s why the enemy of simplicity is not complexity, which is arguably easy to see, but indulgence, for it is much harder to catch in oneself.
A classic example is to add something with all the best intentions, only to realize much later… how are you going to control this new feature? Oh right, the controller. You forgot to consider how this feature is going to be activated, you forgot to make room on the controller. Time to sacrifice that clean controller layout, because this new features has to go somewhere; it’s already been made, there’s no going back now! (Sigh.)
The path to fighting indulgence and embracing simplicity is to constantly seek new ways to use the things you have. I’ve taken to writing and rewriting our “assets” when working on a game. It’s never easy to remember them all, so it pays to keep asking yourself, “what do I have to work with?” It is super important to have this list memorized, or at least handily written down, for it is eventuate you face a problem akin to the following: “Players are saying the game is really boring and drags after the first 3 hours.”
DANGER – DANGER – DANGER
This is where indulgence kicks in. Players are saying the game is boring. We have to spice it up! New! We need something new! And quickly!
Unlike everyone else, though, we refuse to panic. We’re going to be facing problems like this all the time, and the solution lies in asking, “how can we solve this problem with the assets we currently possess.” Or, as I like to approach the problem, “there is a solution in here somewhere, I just need to find it.”
There are times, though, when new features are required. Simplicity doesn’t mean a lack of features, it means a balance of features; and yes, coupled with that balance, comes your personal voice, your honesty.
Honesty vs Ostentation
Playing at being clever is like playing with fire. One can be a clever person, of course, but attempting to BE clever is always so transparent to a true master like Gordon Ramsay. He sees right through that kind of bullshit, right to the childishness in attempting to be clever, and leaves them stripped of all pretense, of all ostentation.
You are right to think, however, that pure simplicity is tiring. There must be a flourish. The following is from Esquires guide to fashion, in their section on building your own personal wardrobe.
“Of course, there is such as thing as too much good taste, which is why you shouldn’t be afraid to add the occasional flourish–maybe even an off-note or two–to your eminently sensible wardrobe. The Italians call it sprezzatura. And if, on a visit to France in 1930, the future Duke of Windsor could wear a checked suit with a pink shirt, red-and-white socks, and black-and-tan shoes, it doesn’t seem such a sartorial risk today for a man to sport burnt-orange socks, for example, and brown suede oxfords with a his grey flannel suit.”
I’ve written before about the need to understand the Core of your game, to know what it’s about. Without understanding this you can never be honest. Think of the core of your game as planet Earth. Now think of your off-note, your flourish, as the moon. The Core of your game (Earth) keeps your flourish(es) bound. Add too much flourish, however, and this increase in mass shall be the downfall: the entire system collapses. The more massive your Core (picture Jupiter), the more flourish can be held in check by that greater mass. A game like GTA, for example, with its massive structure, can hold all kinds of weird and wacky side mission styles games and not feel like it’s coming apart or out of place. A simple and imperfect analogy, but it conjures the kind of image you need in your mind.
In the exact opposite spectrum from GTA, I feel, lies a game like Bioshock Infinite. Here you have a game with a fantastic narrative, but it has a waif-like core. This is not a bad thing by any stretch, but it does mean that any system that pushes the boundaries of the core quickly stands apart. I quite dislike the equipment system in that game. It just feels crappy and half realized. The choices seem pointless, the gear you pick up is randomized (not arbitrary, huge difference), and the menu for changing them is obtuse, to name my major complaints. The “obvious” solution is to increase its design, but that would be wrong. To do so would increase the complexity of this system and, as I see it, be ultimately dishonest to the core of the game. The true solution is to dial it back and simplify it further. That is the only honest solution.
My processes, if you’ve been paying attention, tend to revolve around asking questions. I find knowing the right questions is superior to knowing the right answers, for the validity of your answers is ephemeral, but the right questions will always be relevant.
Simplicity and Honesty are prime examples of this problem. You must always be ready to ask the tough questions, to reevaluate the entire game. Feature A might be the perfect fit for your game today, but, in two months time, Feature B is cut (for other, perfectly valid reasons), calling into question the validity of Feature A. You must ask yourself:
• What kind of game are we really trying to make?
• Does this feature really add to the experience?
• How can we clean up the clutter?
Keep it simple. Keep it clean. Nail the presentation. Words of wisdom no matter your profession, be it cooking, fashion, and yes, even video games.