Minimalism in Video Games: considering Blueberry Garden
I tried to write a paper back in 2005 about minimalism in video games. It was a complete failure. The main tenets of minimalism—functional and visual simplicity, bare-bones design, an exposure of the critical elements of its category—seemed to be largely absent from video games. Sure, I managed to describe the components of some games using minimalism, but as an abstract taxonomy, it failed. I had lost all hope for the minimalist approach to games. Until now…
This week a copy of Blueberry Garden by Erik Svedäng landed on my desktop. After playing it for a few hours, I realized that there was something about it that I just couldn’t quite explain; a je ne sais quoi not present in other games. Overtly, it is a very minimal game—the gameplay is simple, the visuals sparse and beautiful, the music is used sparingly. Consequently, it occurred to me that perhaps a minimalist taxonomy could elucidate some of its defining features. You guessed it—it’s time to apply minimalism.
Before considering the game in these terms, let’s take a brief look at what defines a minimalist text. For the purposes of this article we can compress the definition to three key components. I don’t purport they are comprehensive, but they give you a working idea:
- Minimalist texts embrace the core elements of their category; they are stripped to their essentials
- Features of minimalist texts are highly economical. For example, in a lot of minimalist architecture, one component will serve multiple purposes.
- Less is more: much can be expressed by only using simple features. E.g, minimalist writing is defined by an almost complete lack of adjectival phrases, using basic sentence structure and context to convey meaning.
Blueberry Garden arguably embraces these core minimalist values. In the first instance, it is obviously a highly stripped-down game. There is no evident story behind the gameplay and your actions and interactions with the environment are clear-cut (e.g. B will happen if you eat fruit A). Compare it with Braid and And Yet it Moves which incorporate new properties—temporal and spacial transfiguration—into the platformer genre. Blueberry Garden doesn’t do this but instead examines a set of core properties.
And it works beautifully. Like Philip Glass made music by isolating melody and rhythm, Erik Svedäng has made a game by isolating the “explore-find item” component of games. This feature, as you will know, is almost universal. So why is it different here? Well, Blueberry Garden doesn’t cloud the explore-find item condition with narrative and gives it no significance beyond it being a function of gameplay. Likewise, you don’t fight bosses to get items or even travel large distances. In this respect, compare it to most RPGs.
In addition, items are economically used as part of the environment. When you discover an object in the game, you and it are transported to a home location. As you discover more items, they stack on top of each other. You then travel from the top of said stack. The higher the stack, the more you can explore. Items serve a purpose that’s two-fold: 1) as items you must find and 2) as structurally part of the environment.
In music, minimalist compositions often contain repeated patterns and structures. Anyone who’s listened to Philip Glass or Arvo Pärt will be familiar with this. Blueberry Garden forces the player into a set of fixed patterns. But they are good patterns. You explore (fly around, swim, wander), bring items to home, repeat. In fact, the patterns used at the beginning are present at the end. Again, compare to RPGs where you’ll develop new skills, find new items and enter new environments. While most players will recognize patterns in their RPG play that exist throughout but they are varied by said factors; the patterns become buried.
Before concluding, I’d like to briefly address the minimalism in the games audio and visual design. Visually, the game is very minimal. This doesn’t need much explaining, but what is interesting is that there is almost nothing in the environment that isn’t purposeful. This was one of the critical comments made by minimalist art and design: that beauty doesn’t mean complexity; lines and simple colors are enough; less is more.
Music, I find, also plays an interesting role. It is used sparingly and serves to highlight the sparseness and ranging beauty of the visual elements. Compare this with sculptors and architects who, instead of adding elements to the design itself, used lighting to accentuate aspects of it. That is, the music emphasizes not only the experience of playing but the experience of looking at Blueberry Garden.
While none of the analogies drawn in this superficial examination between Blueberry Garden and minimalism are perfect, I do feel that they are useful. Similarly, I understand that it’s meant to be a short, self-contained experimental game, but it works well as an interesting platform for the views put forward here. As such, applying the conclusions of the critique of minimalist work can illuminate some interesting things about this game. But, as always, we are left with some big Qs:
- How might this analysis be compatible with other games?
- Is the analysis useful? If so, what new ideas emerge? If not, where does it falter; should we reconsider “minimalism” when we discuss games?
- In art and design, minimalism arose out of a reaction to abstract expressionism. Perhaps the components that make Blueberry Garden so interesting arose out of a similar reaction to its contemporaries; graphics-motivated games; and the generally high detail of most games?
- How might the ideas of minimalism explain gameplay elements across video games? Could this be a useful tack in explaining things beyond the visual, auditory and text-based?
- What more can be said about the visual elements of Blueberry Garden?
The purpose here is not to impose critique from other fields on video games but to work towards a new taxonomy using this critique as a starting point. I hope to to spur debate about these topics in pursuit of these taxonomies. So, you heard me. Debate!