2017-10-06

Why I prefer minimalist art styles in games

I'm a big fan of minimalist art styles in games - simple lines and shapes, dashes of color, the occasional complex geometry, etc. I like the way it looks, but there's more to an art style than just the way it looks.
Mini Metro. Image from official press kit.
Games have had a long history of trying to mimic reality, especially big-budget games made by large companies for mass audiences. It can be impressive to see how far technology has come, but basing games in realistic worlds runs counter to game design. Real life has a lot of limitations, and games based on real life have to devote a lot of effort to explaining why you can do things that can't be done in real life, or they blatantly ignore such conflicts and go for the "it's just game logic" option. Whether or not you care about immersion, this is a problem that wouldn't exist if the game wasn't based in reality.
Rise of the Tomb Raider. Image from vg247.com. The player is expected to believe this is real life, but rapid healing is never explained.
Some games are quite clever with how they dodge bullets - they set themselves in futuristic settings, or make magic real. While this typically works for the story, it doesn't always work for the gameplay. At the end of the day, someone has to play the game, and ideally they have to enjoy it. It's hard to fully enjoy a game when you know it's being held back by the pseudo-real laws of reality the designers trapped themselves in.
ECHO. Image from the official press kit. The game is set in the far future within a planet-sized palace with highly advanced technology.
Reality lends itself well to stories because it's been the setting of an overwhelming number of stories for thousands of years. However, many of those stories have also bent reality under the guise of dreams or exaggerated tales. Walking simulators are a great example - while their gameplay is lacking, their stories can be quite fascinating, alternating between reality and imagination as if the player was supposed to know all along that the world didn't follow the same rules as real life. I don't personally enjoy the act of playing such interactive media, but watching others play is as enjoyable as watching a good movie.
What Remains of Edith Finch. Image from PlayStation store page. The game takes place in real life but frequently shifts into tall tales.
But what if you want better gameplay and don't care too much about reality? Games with colorful art styles have far fewer chains holding them back - they can break more rules because they don't look like reality, therefore people don't assume they follow the same rules as reality. Every unexpected element is just a part of how this fictional reality works, and that's okay because the game is the only reference you have for that kind of reality, and it sets the rules for you. There's still a tendency to compare many aspects to real life, but the suspension of disbelief is much easier to maintain.
The Witness. Image screenshotted by me. The nature suggests reality but the technology is all for show.
But art styles other than photorealism can still restrict the gameplay. Whatever art style a game chooses inherently limits the game to what makes sense in that art style. Some art styles are more restrictive than others, such as photorealism and whatever Nintendo is doing to Paper Mario: Color Splash. The presentation of the game sets the bar for what the player is willing to believe can happen in the game, and mismatching the art style with the game's reality often doesn't work. It can leave players wondering if they even understand the art style.
Duskers. Image screenshotted by me. The game convinces you you're a drone operator looking at staticy live feeds on computer screens, but then you can still see drone feeds when your screen is supposedly broken and stopping you from seeing the ship layout, thus the story and art style contradict the gameplay and experience.
At some point along the spectrum of art styles, you end up on the opposite end from photorealism: minimalism. In minimalist art styles, you use the bare minimum of shapes and colors to convey the game's world to the player, leaving the gameplay as the focus. Instead of having to come up with contrived reasons for why the player has to do something or why the player cannot do something, you just tell the player outright and the accept it. There is no preconceived ruleset for how the world should function, and what the game says is law.
Antichamber. Image screenshotted by me. The game is focused on learning the rules of the world in order to explore. It is very clearly not set in reality.
This affords so much more freedom for a game to explore its gameplay mechanics in whatever combinations it pleases. It also maintains a permanent suspension of disbelief because the player believes everything they see, having no reference to find inconsistencies with. Games with minimalist art styles need only teach the player what everything means and how it works, and then the game can challenge the player to test that knowledge. As you would expect, minimalism lends itself well to puzzle games, but it can also work well for other types of games, such as those featuring combat.
SUPERHOT. Image from official press kit. While the environments look like they could be in the real world, they merely serve as creative obstacles.
Unfortunately, many games with minimalist art styles often fail to explore their full potential, probably because developers are used to working within the limited confines of other art styles closer to photorealism. The sky isn't the limit because there need not be a sky, only your ability to convey information to the player limits what you can do. Compared to the noisy environments of photorealistic games that players have to learn to ignore 90% of, minimalism offers an unprecedented lack of distractions. Because of this, players can take in much more relevant information from a scene and remain much more observant. The use of simple shapes and colors makes it easy for people of all ages and backgrounds to pick up and play a game with a minimalist art style, and leaves a lot of room on the table for challenging more advanced players.
Disoriented. Image from Steam store page. Extremely disappointing as the puzzles never get more challenging, just more tedious.
Some common criticisms that I often see of games with minimalist art styles is that they are lazy, and that they all look the same (or more recently, that they all look like Antichamber). While developers often intentionally choose an art style that they have the ability to pull off, it isn't always out of laziness. There will always be developers who take the lazy approach, but the point of a minimalist art style isn't to look impressive, it's to focus on the gameplay. If the gameplay is lazy, then yes, the art style is probably lazy too. But if the gameplay, experience, or story is great, the minimalist art style can suit it, lazy or not.
LIMBO. Image from official press kit. While the gameplay and story are nothing to write home about, the experience lends itself well to the minimalist art style.
As for many minimalist games looking the same, I could say the same about photorealism, animated movies, traditional movies, etc. A game's identity isn't supposed to be its art style. The gameplay, the experience, and/or the story should serve as the identity, while the art style merely serves the needs of those three. Make the game first, and then pick the art style that best suits the game afterward. Picking the art style first can box you into a corner and cause you to waste time if you change your mind. I feel that many games would be much better if they were in a different art style - not because changing the art style magically makes the game better, but because it allows (or disallows) different possibilities as needed. Minimalism is actually best suited to a focus on gameplay, and shouldn't be used if you want to focus on the experience or story of a game instead.
Watch this if you're confused by my use of the word 'experience'.

At the end of the day, I like the potential that minimalism offers over other art styles, but I also just like the way it looks. Despite many minimalist games not reaching their full potential, I still get excited when I see a new game featuring simple shapes and lines. You never know when a developer will finally realize that they can do everything and more with minimalism. One day I hope to even create a couple minimalist games myself, but I'm totally not a ninja, so that'll totally never happen.