Split Screen: Complexity out of simplicity
Ziggurat has a simple set of rules that interact to create complex scenes of mayhem and destruction.
If you are in Melbourne and have not dropped into Australian Centre for the Moving Image to check out their free exhibit of games from the Independent Games Festival, you should consider slotting it into your calendar. A few weeks ago a new batch of games was put on display, fresh from IGF 2012 in San Francisco, and these games will be on display until July 8.
I plan to get along to ACMI soon, as I really enjoyed having a look at the exhibit of games from 2011. While indie games can lack some of the polish of their studio-made contemporaries, they are often packed with fascinating ideas, often too strange, too experimental, or too risky for mainstream commercial developers.
One of the things I enjoy in many indie games is the way they will present a very simple set of rules and let the player discover the complexity that can arise from them. The 2011 Best of IGF exhibit at ACMI featured a prototype game called Faraway. Creator Steph Thirion has stated that he wanted to make a very simple, easy-to-understand set of rules and see how complex a game could be built on that foundation.
Faraway is surprisingly deep for a one-button game.
The player controls a short-lived comet or meteor, shooting through space with only a minute or so left before fading into nothing. The game is controlled with a single button. When it is pressed, the player's meteor will interact with the gravity of the nearest star, and when the button is lifted, the meteor will be slingshotted back into space.
Points are scored, along with a few precious seconds of extra life, by flying into star clusters and swinging around the local stars. As you swing around them, you join them up with lines, forming constellations. Larger and more complex constellations score more points and time.
That is essentially the entire game, but despite its simplicity I found myself playing it far longer than any other game on display. On my first game I didn't understand how to make it work, and I wasted far too much of my comet's lifespan trying to get the hang of the gravity slingshot mechanic, but after a few games I started to get a feel for it and really began to enjoy it.
The complete version of Faraway will be coming to Apple touch devices some time this year, and I plan to be a day-one purchaser.
Another iOS game with a deceptively simple set of rules is Ziggurat, released on the App Store in February for $0.99. The central concept is familiar: an alien invasion has wiped out humanity, and a lone survivor with a stolen alien weapon is making a last stand. Unusually in the world of video games, it is a fight you cannot win - the aliens will overwhelm you eventually - but your aim is to take out as many as you can before they get you.
Your nameless hero stands atop the titular ziggurat as weird robotic-looking creatures bound in from the sides of the screen, increasing in numbers and toughness until one of them slips under your guard. The controls are simple: touch the screen to build up a shot from your energy weapon, aim by swiping from side to side, and fire by lifting your finger off the screen.
It seems very basic, but there is a lot of very clever design bubbling away under the surface of Ziggurat that makes it a surprisingly deep and strategic game to play. First, the way your gun fires is extremely variable. The longer you hold down your finger, the more powerful your shot will become and the straighter and faster it will fire, so when the action gets frantic you will frequently be deciding whether to store up a powerful shot or to fire off more frequent shots that are less damaging and less accurate.
The aliens themselves are also variable, with heads that expand and shrink as they advance across the screen. If you shoot one while its head is big it will explode, possibly destroying its neighbours and, if you're lucky, setting off a long chain reaction of destruction that can clear the whole screen of enemies. One of the game's primary strategies is picking out enemies to shoot at just the right time to do the most damage to their neighbours when they explode.
Even the enemy movement is unpredictable, though. Alone, an alien will bounce steadily up the side of the ziggurat, but when two aliens collide they interrupt each other's movement, and one may even leap off the other's head.
With a very simple set of rules, Ziggurat has created an amazingly dynamic and unpredictable experience. It is an excellent example of how excellent design can do great things with even the simplest of ideas.
Before wrapping up, it would be remiss of me not to mention Adam Saltsman's classic Canabalt, one of the first and best of the one-click games. Your character runs from left to right and you click to jump over obstacles. Simple, right? You would think so, but managing your hero's speed is a delicate balancing act, and it leads to unexpected strategic depth.
While I love sprawling, complex, fine-tuned experiences like Skyrim and Assassin's Creed, there is something extremely satisfying about a very simple design that unpacks into a surprisingly complex game experience.
Over to you, Screen Play readers. Do you have any favourite examples of games with simple rules that provide a deep, complex experience to the player? Please tell us about them in the comments section below.
- James "DexX" Dominguez