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Minimalism And Magic

Written By mista sense on Wednesday, April 13, 2011 | 12:23 PM

Kirk Hamilton and I have been writing all those FFVII Letters at Paste, banging on about how special and imaginative the game is. Yet as Kirk pointed out in our last letter, it contains a Meteor called "Meteor," a Weapon called WEAPON, and stuff called Black Materia and Huge Materia (to differentiate itself from regular old Materia, of course). Creative.

But in today's new edition in the series, I talk about how the simplistic names are abstraction at its happy work yet again -- when we don't have to think much about what things are called, it gives us more mental resources to think about what they are. Simple names make important concepts intuitive, second-nature. And then when something is named rather prettily, like the sunken Gelnika or Turks leader Tseng, it makes more of an impact on us.

When I was a kid, every game I played was painfully basic in presentation and interface. The only explanation I have for why I so loved these ancient computer games I wrote about in Thought Catalog today was that I was young, had an overactive imagination and had little else I wanted to do with my playtime -- not to mention it's not like we had many more sophisticated adventures in the 1980s, right?

I also think they impacted me so much because they were SO terse, so crude. That blob on the wall is a cabinet I'm supposed to open? How the eff would I have known that without stabbing in the dark? Why does the game tell me I'm holding a map if it is of no use to read it? I must type ENTER HOUSE and not OPEN DOOR or else the game will tell me that area is not available, and if I go WEST at this intersection I'll be instantly killed? Cool.

That cursor blinking at me, demanding my next move, frustration a constant pall -- and yet the continual possibility of sudden, lucky solution teased at the fringe of my awareness just as much as did the threat of sudden, accidental death. I'd hold my breath and get chills; they remain among my favorite gaming memories.

When young there was nothing I loved more than rich universes. I'd write about my favorite games, draw pictures and play pretend. That's why so much of my writing lately has hinged on parsing exactly what's changed -- either about games or about me -- that makes me so inattentive and easily bored.

When I play games that give me lorebooks, diary entries, character stories hidden off the beaten path, I'm surprised at how little I care. It's not so simple as impatience for reading -- I like reading, and I don't even mind when reading in text adventures or visual novels comes at the expense of interactivity. "I've changed," I shrug to myself when I have a million New Unread Notes blinking at me in this or that UI and I just scroll through them quickly because the star or dot or highlight or exclamation point that tells me I haven't read them yet bugs me like it does in Gmail.

Yet as we observe in the FFVII Letters, some types of games can make me go way, way out of my way and to much inconvenience for even the possibility of discovering a new piece of information. Why will I do it for characters and plot threads that are so minimal, when I won't do it for things rendered in much more depth?

Because I like minimalism, I guess. I like to do the brain-work myself, the imagining myself. And I get such a thrill from looking at the title screens of these old adventure games I can now revisit thanks to the magic of this web-based IIe emulator that I don't even try to play them that often, because it still feels good to think of them as ghosts I never conquered, awesome machines that have forever outsmarted me. It still feels good to preserve them as half-remembered, near-legendary things.

And also because I still can't beat most of them without a walkthrough, and you know once you open a walkthrough for one puzzle your tolerance for future ones steadily decreases, and before you know it, you're just going through the motions, and that's no way to honor my past. I get addicted to hints (you should have seen our phone bill, and my parents' consternation, back when Sierra still operated that buck-a-minute hint line).

Anyway, you might have missed this 2009 Classic Moment In SVGL History when I wrote this "open letter" to Bob Blauschild, the designer of two out of five of my best-remembered -- and most frustrating -- adventure games, whose name sketched on the title screens always stuck with me. I did it mostly as humor, never expecting that he'd ever see it, but he did, and here's what he wrote back to me.

Hearing from Mr. Blauschild was frankly a little dazzling, because I still maintain that lifeline to the way I felt about those old computer games and the invisible, sadistic entities that made them. Once in a while if I think about it, so is the fact that I now have periodic occasion to be in the same room as "Lord British", whom as a kid I presumed had to be some real-life mysterious English lord, sitting on a throne made of mainframes, silently challenging the world's peons to encounter him at Ultima. When I was tiny I thought he maybe wasn't even real, some artificial consciousness assembled in green pixels.

I think that's part of the Minecraft juggernaut today, actually. There's the idea of a single figure who goes by the moniker of 'Notch', creating the weather in a savage and lawless, endless world that challenges its players to eke out defiance -- and beauty -- one hard-won step, one precious discovery at a time. Awe and death are both certain in Minecraft, and you just never know which is coming next.


[Today's Good Song: Memory Tapes, 'Today Is Our Life']

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