A Plea for Elegance

"Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood. "
- T. S. Eliot

September is actually the cruelest month. On the wrong end of convention season, September delivers an embarrassment of choice. From Gen Con, I carry home a treasure trove of games – some of which I’ve played, some of which I’ve simply been hyped into buying. These new games sit on a pale wooden desk in a corner of the basement, next to the giant turntable full of Vallejo paints, unwatched DVDs, and a half-finished card-stock pirate ship for a D&D Campaign gone fallow.

Above this alternative desk – one that doesn’t get used for work – is a calendar with release dates on it. It’s perhaps a sign of some deep psychological trauma that the embarrassment of opportunity on and around that desk fills me not with child-like glee, but with angst. The rules for Agricola, this year's new hotness, lie dog-eared but still poorly understood on the desk – an impenetrable tome symbolic of the learning curve I increasingly face playing most games.

It's not that I'm lazy. I'm just a moron.

My brain is a fairly straightforward place. As a much younger man, 83.7 percent of my brain was dedicated to women. This left a frightfully small percentage for trivial tasks like breathing, eating, studying, and working. As a result of my quasar-like intensity in the pursuit of female companionship, the portion of my brain I could allocate to, say, a vicious game of Cosmic Encounter or Chess was quite small, and as such, I rapidly entered a lifelong relationship with suck.

My taste in games quickly boiled down to those which required minimal brainpower to learn – a kind of intellectual rules-aphasic sloth. It wasn’t that the idle-Rabbit of 1985 was incapable of playing complex games - even occasionally playing them well when I could free up the processor cycles from worrying about whether Clarissa was going to dump me and my didn’t Margot look nice in those jeans. No, it was the tolerance and capacity to sit down and read Chapter C of Advanced Squad Leader that eluded me.

Into this haze of cardboard and paper rules aversion, video games were a shining light.

Zork requires no manual. PacMan and DigDug and Tail Gunner didn’t even need the instructions printed in day-glow yellow under the cigarette stained plastic. The Atari 2600 joystick had one, smooth, red plastic button to go with its iconic black rubber phallus. These old-gen videogames weren’t actually all that great – I’m not one of those inclined to wax nostalgic about 8-bit. But they were elegant in their simplicity.

Since the halcyon days of the '80s arcade, the pressure on gaming seems to be towards complexity, often for complexities sake. While Advanced Squad Leader remains the object lesson in intellectual self-mutilation it was back in 1985, it is no longer alone. White-box D&D became AD&D became D&D 3.5 – a version of D&D so complex it needed point revisions. The Atari 2600’s one-button gave way first to four, requiring letters or symbols to differentiate, and then came analog sticks, shoulder buttons, and the hidden mind probe inside my PC that coerces my children into running downstairs so as to cause maximum disruption during a match of Team Fortress 2. At the arcade, the development of combos killed my short love affair with fighting games the minute I realized that every freaking character in every freaking game was going to have his unique version of Up-Down-A-A-C-C.

Thankfully, marriage returned a large number of brain cells into circulation, which could then be used for learning new games. After meeting my wife, I was suddenly able to play Magic: The Gathering. I learned how the stats in RPGs worked. I learned how to fly both real and pretend airplanes on instruments. I even went so far as to teach myself Advanced Squad Leader one contested hex at a time.

But then I had kids. Suddenly those braincells (and hours in the day) I’d grown accustomed to were once again seconded to real life. Last year at Gen Con, I gave up. I realized that those braincells capable of tracking my multiman counters across the hedgerows of Europe, or really knowing exactly how that Vorpal Loot Drop is going to affect my DPS, are just gone. Perhaps they went into worrying about health insurance and mortgage payments. Maybe I’m just dying one dendrite at a time. But something had to go from my brain, and learning rules and studying games was it.

I’m not saying I can’t win BINGO if you spot me BING. But I am saying that the reallocation of brain cells required to learn a game disturbs the very serotonin bath I play games to engender. And so, I’ve been reluctant to play new games that do not exhibit one trait:

Elegance.

With a board game this elegance in design has a hallmark. When I open the box, there’s a manual. If it’s a single side of one sheet of paper – like, say, Hive - I can be playing in moments, and whether the game is good or bad, at least I’ll be playing, and I can have an informed opinion about it. More often than not, that simplicity in rules actually evidences an elegance in play. If it’s a 32 page tome with countless examples of play and a description of setup that reads like the loadout for Napoleon’s ill fated winter holiday in Russia – like, say, Arkham Horror – I know that no matter how brilliant the game is, it’s going to be a long slog through that first game.

In video games, elegance has become much harder to gauge. Games like Peggle are elegant by design, but fail to hold my attention for long, because there’s no hidden complexity to balance the approachability. Elegance does not make a game good, it merely makes it approachable. Team Fortress 2 was completely engaging from the moment the cartoon class selections showed on my screen. The game didn’t assume a deep knowledge of either squad based shooters or Team Fortress Classic. It eschewed countless opportunities to busy-up the core design. And underneath that elegance is a game that’s just plain fun.

Complex games have their place. But learning how to play Civ IV required an act of will, and learning Sins of a Solar Empire required a live coach.

I don’t want to have to work that hard to play a complex game. And I don’t want games that embrace simplicity just for simplicities sake, providing no redeeming game play or story (something I’m a bit bitter about having played a few hours of American McGee’s Grimm).

I want games, in short, like Spore.

I've only played through the first half of the game. After such a short time, I'm in no position to say this is or isn't a great game all the way through, or what kind of a game it really is. But I do know that it engages my intuition at least as much as my intellect.

I look back at the desk, with its rules and paints and minis. And its release list.

This is the long Christmas for gamers.

I sit here on the floor, with the smell of spruce and my wife telling me I can’t unwrap anything until she’s had her coffee. I know that inside all the shiny wrappers are Warhammer Online and Viva Pinata and Fallout 3 and Agricola and half a dozen other shiny new toys.

But I’m secretly afraid of all of them.

Please don’t let there be “Some Assembly Required.”

I want an Apple Christmas, not an Ikea Birthday.

Comments

I both read the rules, and then had someone teach me, and I have to tell you, the game is a slog until it all clicks. And I agree, old AH rules were tests to see if you were worthy to play the game!

rabbit wrote:

Elegance has context.

Wow that is truly profound, and I think it is very true. Context is something that permeates everything we do and without it, many things lose the depth of there meaning. I can see how context really changes the level of elegance attributed to a game.

Elegance in that case is similar to things that might be incomprehensible except by a localized expert. However, something that displays transcendental elegance would need to minimize the need for context. I.E. the game that is elegant whether I am a gamer or not. Hardcore, casual or never playing games doesn't matter. It would hit everyone on a different level, but it would be elegant in its own way to all of us.

Now that is a lofty goal that is probably not attainable. In fact even looking at everyday life it is difficult to see things that would qualify as having transcendental elegance. I am wracking my brain for an example, but deep down everything ends up needing some context. Although I think that the Fischer space pen comes pretty darn close. The only context you need is that the device will make a mark on paper. We should all thank NASA for its invention.

cmitts wrote:
rabbit wrote:

Elegance has context.

Context is something that permeates everything we do.

I'm going to go out on a limb and declare that you've got that backwards.

rabbit wrote:

Ah, yes. Interesting point. Elegance has context.

Yeah exactly.

Elegance to me means throwing out what you don't need which is essentially game design 101.

I think WoW is fairly elegant compared to the rest of its genre.

I thought Civ4 was bloated and could have used some streamlining.

Most EA games never strike me as elegant. Most Nintendo games do.

I think OS/X is much more elegant than Windows and yet it doesn't mean OS/X = Peggle in complexity shown to the user.

I admit though that many people like designs that perhaps aren't elegant. They like to wade through everything and play with what they want to play with even if it means going through (for example) 20 rifles that essentially function the same way gameplay-mechanically speaking.

Very interesting. I recently found myself wondering why I'm enjoying Civilization Revolution so much, and I think this article pretty much nails the reason. I've played all the various versions of Civ, but only rarely been into it enough to get into the micromanagement that it lets you do. I think Civ Rev does a great job of capturing the core gameplay experience of the Civ games. As simple as possible, and no simpler. Elegant.

rabbit wrote:

My recent experience teaching a non-gamer friend to play WoW...

Enabler!

BadKen wrote:
rabbit wrote:

My recent experience teaching a non-gamer friend to play WoW...

Enabler!

Have you heard the conference call? It may be worse than you think.

Her last comment to me on IM was that she had forgotten to pick up her daughter from Preschool because she was trying to get her first pet. I'm actually now feeling genuinely guilty about it. As she said "how much longer before I'm locking my kids in cages like that chick from The Guild?"

rabbit wrote:

Her last comment to me on IM was that she had forgotten to pick up her daughter from Preschool because she was trying to get her first pet. I'm actually now feeling genuinely guilty about it. As she said "how much longer before I'm locking my kids in cages like that chick from The Guild?"

O.O Damn! She needs an intervention already.