I’ve always been interested in minimalism in other art forms. This of course, opens another can of worms: the great debate as to whether or not videogames are, or could be, art. I actually take a more of a conservative stance than most game developers in that I don’t think games are inherently art. Videogames are a medium, just like film, television, theatre, or music or painting. These forms of media can be used to create art, or entertainment, or advertising. And for the media that are generally regarded as art (painting, music, theatre) there are artists who constantly push the boundaries of the medium. They force people—artists, critics, and ordinary people—to ask questions. “Is this art?” “Can this really be considered music?” “What is the defining characteristics of theatre?” Some in particular do this by trying to create a piece that meets the smallest possible criteria of the definition of that art form.
Samuel Beckett’s play, Breath – 25 seconds long, contains no actors, no movement, other than the curtains, and the only sounds are two cries and breathing. But it takes place on a stage, it has a script, it contains stage-direction.
Napalm Death’s song, You Suffer – Regarded as the shortest song in existence at precisely 1.316 seconds long. But it still contains all the elements of any rock/metal song: guitar, bass, drums, vocals.
John Cage’s composition, 4’33” – A three-movement composition for any instrument (or combination of instruments), made entirely of silence. The argument being that music is composed of sound that is organized in some fashion. Whether or not silence can be considered sound is up for debate, but some people consider the ambient noise of the audience and the performance hall (or location, generally speaking) to be part of the piece. You can even buy sheet music for 4’33”. Does that make it a composition? Does that make it music?
Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings – Seven entirely blank white panels. It is still paint on canvas. Is it still art? I’ve seen it displayed in the San Francisco MoMA, so by definition, it must be high art. Some argue, just like with 4’33”, that the painting’s interaction with it’s environment—the lighting, the shadows cast on the canvas, the museum patrons staring quizzically at the empty space on the wall—are part of the piece itself.
One thing is for certain. If we cannot ask these pretentious questions about videogames, then how can we consider them art?
So what is the most basic definition we have for games? Generally, it is regarded that all games must have a goal. This does not mean that the game has to be “winnable”. Take Asteroids, for example. There is no way to win Asteroids, but the goal is to get the highest possible score.
As another example, SimCity does not have a specific goal. It has a lot of numbers that can increase and decrease, but it is ultimately up to the player to decide how they want to play and what they want to achieve. Because of this, SimCity’s designer, Will Wright, refers to it as a “toy” rather than a “game” because there are any number of ways to play with it. But it is still regularly regarded as one of the “best games of all time” by numerous critics. Does that not make it a game? Clearly, even the requirement of a goal is somewhat lenient. Is score purely a goal, or just a metric? If so, what does this say about games, like Asteroids, where scoring is the only goal? Is the goal of Asteroids to achieve the highest score, or merely to survive the constant onslaught of cosmic rocks? If the latter, does that mean the player always loses?
The second requirement of games is that they must have rules. I once read somewhere (can’t find the source off-hand) that game design is the process of adding rules to a system to make it less efficient. The classic example being that if a boxer’s goal is to get his opponent to lay on the mat for 10 seconds, the most efficient way of doing that would be to shoot the other boxer in the head. Thus rules are added to the game so that the boxer can only cause his opponent to fall by using a certain style of punches. Whether or not this is accurate description of game design, or merely a cute sound bite does not change the generally upheld conception that games are made out of rules.
Another requirement often cited is that games must have some form of player interaction. This could be as much as maintaining an entire fleet of spaceships in battle against another fleet, while trying to manage resource collection, empire expansion, and technology development, or as little as pressing a button to jump.
So, if games are defined as a goal and a set of rules with player interaction, what is the most basic, minimal implementation possible? For the sake of this contest, I’m going to limit this argument to “computer games”–that is, games that can be played on a computer.
Even the current version of my game has more than that. Since a game does not necessarily have to be winnable, or have an end-state, I can remove that part of the game, but I still need to have a goal. The current goal of the game is essentially to terminate it as fast as possible. That can still be the goal even if I take out the “game over” message and the ranking system (which take up the majority of the code). Alternately, I could make the goal to keep the game running as long as possible, similar to Asteroids, or Progress Quest. I don’t even need to keep a score inside my game as the operating system and the Process Manager already keep track of how long the game has been running.
Since the goal has changed, and therefore the rules have changed, I still need to communicate the new rules to the player somehow. My game has to have a name of some sort so to get to the most minimal state possible I’m going to make the game’s title the same as the full text of it’s instruction manual. How’s that for usability?
I still need to have player interaction, but does that mean my game has to accept input? Is the input that it takes to start the game and stop the game enough? If so, I can remove the input code as well.
So what is left? I’ve got a game, where the goal is to keep the game running as long as possible. The rules are… to keep the game running as long as possible? And the player interaction is to start and stop the game. I’d say that’s about as minimal a computer game as you can get.
Here’s the final tally:
Platform: Windows (Tested on XP, 2000. Probably works with all x86 processors Win95 and greater.)
Source: 2 lines, 76 bytes (including copyright notice comment)
Executable: 5,632 bytes. (Future plans: write it in native assembly code, Linux, Mac ports.)