Video Games Tending To Zero

I’ve been interested in testing the lower limits of digital objects, looking at how simple and minimal something can be while still being understood as falling into a fairly familiar category. My ppg256 series, which consists of 256-character Perl poetry generators, is in this vein, as are my attempts at very small stories and poems in forms, “Ten Mobile Texts.” In the realm of sound, Tristan Perich’s One-Bit Music and Shifty’s One-Bit Groovebox are somewhat similar projects that attempt to show that if you bring eight bits, you aren’t bringing eight bits too few – you’re bringing seven too many.

It’s also possible to wonder what the smallest possible video game is, or how to push video games toward minimality. First, let’s take a step back to see what the smallest possible game of any sort might be: The Game, in which one simply tries to avoid thinking of The Game, and, if one does think of the game, one loses. This one’s interesting because it can’t be won. Neither can Space Invaders, of course, but The Game is different: a player can’t even be conscious of playing without losing.

Somewhat akin to ppg256 and The Game is Jason McIntosh’s obfuscated (or at least very compressed) game, a 494-character Perl program in which you plunge down a canyon, inflecting yourself left and right to try to avoid hitting the walls of a canyon, which slant and are unseen until the last moment. is made of a very small amount of code, but there are plenty of games with less – Pong, for instance, is simply a circuit and doesn’t have any code. One thing I find interesting about and pleasing in some minimal games is the highly abstract nature of the visuals, something also seen in Pong. This Perl game actually has many of Pong‘s luxuries as well, including multiple lives and a report of your score at the end of the game.

Players wait for the next lightning strike in Ian Bogosts Thunderstorm.
Players wait for the next lightning strike in Ian Bogost's Thunderstorm.

Although made up of a whole 1024 bytes each – of assembly – Ian Bogost’s game poems for the Atari VCS incline toward minimality. The most recent entry, Thunderstorm, is a game about watching a thunderstorm and guessing, after a flash of lightning, how long it will take for thunder to sound. Simple as it is, this game uses audio as well as video channels, features color (although rarely), supports two-player competition, and is winnable.

As it has in music, physical computing has weighed in on minimal video gaming. Rob Seward’s three-person Tag is played on a 5×7 LED grid and has been hailed as “the simplest video game in the world.” Interestingly, Clive Thompson goes on to note that Seward’s game Boo is even simpler, with a single light bulb for a display. One player lights the bulb and the other attempts to hit a button as soon as possible afterwards.

There are some things that all of these games have in common: Something surprising happens in all of them, and that surprising thing is critical to the gameplay. Randomness provides the surprise in and Thunderstorm. The players provide it in Tag and Boo. A representational excuse (you’re falling into a canyon, we’re watching a storm, got you!) can be used, but it’s the unexpected, not the connection to reality, that makes these games work. And there’s just one last thing to note: I think that surprise even plays an important role in The Game. Ouch … I just lost The Game.