Things of Beauty: Osmos and Hemisphere’s Slides
At GDC, one of the best presentations I went to was given by Eddy Boxerman and Andy Nealen from Hemisphere Games about their indy game, Osmos. This game is the only one that I have paid for as a downloadable PC game since Portal, and to me it shares a miraculous feeling of beautiful design with Valve’s hit game. If you haven’t seen the trailer for this game or played it, go to the link there and get a quick taste. I’ll wait.
Okay, back? Great. I’ve been waiting for the Hemisphere guys to post their GDC slides, which they have now done. Like the game itself, these slides are worth grabbing. They share with the game a consistent minimalist sense where meaning arises out of spare elegance.
While the first part of the talk is strewn with gems for any game designer and provides a unique look into the evolution of a game from concept to reality, it was the second part where for me things really got going. During this part, Nealen talked about minimalism in game design, again reflecting this ethos in his slides. He quoted Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things (a book that should be on every game designer’s shelf) in talking about “perceived affordances” (slide 32) and in the goal statement that design should “expose only the meaningful actions provided by the system.”
Nealen went on to expand on this in terms of the system, user input, and audiovisual output in what at first looked like a fairly typical unit-less bar-graph slide… that then turned into something that would make Tufte smile. He managed to link this “stack” of design factors to the area of flow between boredom and overload (recalling explicitly the game of the same name and of course to work by Csíkszentmihályi, and implicitly referring to the Yerkes-Dodson performance curve on which so much game design is perhaps unintentionally based).
This was then linked with the relationship between minimalism and realism and the Uncanny Valley (slide 39) and, most brilliantly, with minimalism and style as expressed by McCloud in Understanding Comics (with a nod I thought to McKee’s plot-structure diagram (p. 45 ff) in Story), culminating in the concept of the “uncanny ravine” as a design approaches realism from the directions of iconography and language.
This was then followed by a compellingly minimalist film from 1944 — showing how we impute meaning into simple geometric figures (though there was no mention or example of Ken Perlin‘s equally compelling work on similar geometric figures in 3D).
I highly recommend both Osmos the game and these slides as worthy of play and contemplation, respectively. There are riches in appropriate minimalism that I think we often rush right past in our desire to instead reproduce the mundane world we live in.