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15 Jan 2015

Indie Developers: Less Is More

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One of the creepiest and weirdest games I’ve ever played was developed by an indie developer sometime around 2002. I can’t remember the name, but you played as the right-hand man to your millionaire boss. As you play the game, you find that your boss’ wife – if I remember correctly, a young blonde bombshell that’s obviously a gold digger – gradually begins seducing you. You’re not sure if she is and a lot of weird things happen, but eventually she admits she wants you to help her to eliminate the husband via some sort of witchcraft-like ritual. Being seduced with dreams of being with this 10 (and being the moron that you are), you go along with the plan – only to find that it was only a trick! The ritual worked, but it forced you and your boss to switch bodies.

The game ends with the player trapped in this old man’s dying body, unable to get out and save himself.  A creepy series of events has led the player to feeling helpless and abandoned, and the dialogue of the game really captures the mood and feeling the developer was trying to convey.

Also, the game is a text adventure.

Not only did the game take about an hour to complete, but it made me feel more uneasy than most horror games I’ve ever played. It’s the perfect example of why less is more when it comes to developing indie games, and proof that the most powerful game engine isn’t software, but the player’s mind.

Going back to horror games for a moment, the ‘less is more’ approach is why games like Amnesia and Outlast are so terrifying. Instead of seeing the monster, entity, or whatever else is haunting you, most of the time it’s hidden from sight. In that moment, the image we create in our minds is immensely more horrifying than just some random creature the developers could have inserted into the game.

This is the same across all genres as well – and Metroid is a perfect example. Instead of have the luxury of looking at a map of the world, you are tasked with exploring one screen at a time in the huge world of Zebos. Because you can never see the full map of the game, this makes Metroid feel huge! Certainly, you feel as if you are exploring a planet where absolutely anything can happen!

I remember in an interview on Game Academy Radio a little over a year ago, I interviewed a team of devs that discussed the importance of restricting player choice within a game. I can’t remember exactly the example we gave, but it had to do with being forced to accept a mission in Skyrim automatically and having to use only the weapons and objects you had at your disposal (which would force players to be creative about how they completed the mission). By following the ‘less is more’ ideology, the mission would become more challenging and ultimately, more fun.

I suppose the point of today’s post is to convince you, dear reader, that there is no reason to show everything, go all-out, and essentially ‘show your hand’ in your indie games. Scale back and show less as much as possible, and allow the player’s mind to fill in the blanks. I said it before so I’ll say it once again: a player’s mind is the most powerful game engine out there – so take advantage of it!

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