Insomnia | Commentary

Mini-games are for Mini-gamers

By Alex Kierkegaard / April 30, 2008

lol, yeah. You know who they are. The "quirky" indie game lovers. The Xbox Live "Arcade" game hipsters. The Mini-Yous and the Mini-Mes. Et cetera. But don't let my derisive tone fool you -- this is one of the most important articles you will ever read on this website, or any website for that matter. If you understand this one thing, you are only one step away from understanding everything (that step I'll leave for another day -- got to save something for later, to keep you coming back and all).

So what are the causes of the mini-game phenomenon? Because it is a phenomenon -- and a recent one at that. I am racking my brain trying to remember any mini-games from my youth, or any mention of mini-games in the specialist press of my youth, and I come up with nothing. And yet ask any indie hipster/New Games Artfag about their favorite recent games and most of what they'll come up with is, effectively, mini-games. So what happened in the meantime, eh? Why are we being told by these self-styled "intellectual gamers" that the future of our hobby is no longer to be reached by increasing complexity, but by reducing it?

Well, because they are stupid, man -- because complexity is too complex for them. Because they haven't yet realized that progress in electronic gaming has always been synonymous with increasing complexity, whereas the mini-game phenomenon is nothing but a denial of this progress -- a denial of the future. And this is what all their arguments against complexity basically amount to:

Random indie hipster: "Man, KOF XI and Arcana Heart look cool and all, but all those bars and meters on the screen are too confusing for my tiny retard's brain and Homer Simpson-like attention span. Everyone I play against wipes the floor with my face before I've even located my sprite on the screen, let alone figured out what all those freaking meters do."

Me: "Well then maybe you should try Street Fighter II: The World Warrior."

Random indie hipster: "Man, Supreme Commander looks cool and all, but I keep getting slaughtered online -- haven't won a single battle yet! There's so much stuff to keep track of -- and in real-time too! -- that the whole thing ends up too confusing for my tiny retard's brain and Homer Simpson-like attention span."

Me: "Well then maybe you should try Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty."

Random indie hipster: "Man, Deus Ex looks cool and all, but wtf, it's not enough that I have to run around corridors shooting stuff, now I have to actually think too? All those skills and high-tech gadgets and sneaking around and intricate interactive plot choices are just too confusing for my tiny retard's brain and Homer Simpson-like attention span."

Me: "Well then maybe you should try Wolfenstein 3D."

Random indie hipster: "Man, Galactic Civilizations II looks cool and all, but seriously, who the fuck can play these games? Who can keep track of all these factors -- planetary management, economics, ship design, politics, etc. -- in a game that goes on and on for days? It's just too confusing for my tiny retard's brain and Homer Simpson-like attention span."

Me: "Well then maybe you should try Defender of the Crown."

Random indie hipster: "Man, Ketsui looks cool and all, but Jesus Christ with these fucking bullets already! There's just too many of them for my tiny retard's brain and Homer Simpson-like attention span."

Me: "Well then maybe you should try Space Invaders."

Random indie hipster: "Oh wow, you're right. I'd never heard of those games you mentioned. From what I gathered from Wikipedia, they must be perfect for my tiny retard's brain and Homer Simpson-like attention span. The problem is that my local supermarket doesn't stock them anymore, so it's impossible for me to find them. And besides, from Wikipedia pictures I saw, they look... old and ugly. So what I want is all the world's most ambitious and talented developers to stop designing newer, more complex games, and go back and endlessly rehash decades-old games, only with shinier, higher-resolution graphics, gritty, realistic proportions, and perhaps random motion-sensing gimmicks. Yes, that's what I'd like! In other words, I want the videogame industry to halt all progress and instead endlessly repeat itself in order to accommodate little ignorant, lazy retards with bad taste like me."

Me: "Well then maybe you should go fuck yourself."

But enough with the joking and the name-calling -- there is an important point behind all the infantility, and that point is that increasingly complex games are necessary in order to sustain the interest of an intelligent human being. Electronic games are like toys in a way (and forget about what Wikipedia tells you on the differences between toys and games -- listen to what I am telling you here) -- you buy one, you play with it for a while, and then eventually you want something bigger and more intricate, something that does more stuff. It is vitally important that the new toy should do more stuff, since, except if you are feebleminded, a different shape or color will simply not satisfy you, at least not for long. This is essentially the same sentiment that Pauline Kael expressed in one of her essays, circa 1969 -- only in respect to movies:

"When you're young the odds are very good that you'll find something to enjoy in almost any movie. But as you grow more experienced, the odds change. I saw a picture a few years ago that was the sixth version of material that wasn't much to start with. Unless you're feebleminded, the odds get worse and worse. We don't go on reading the same kind of manufactured novels -- pulp Westerns or detective thrillers, say -- all of our lives, and we don't want to go on and on looking at movies about cute heists by comically assorted gangs. The problem with a popular art form is that those who want something more are in a hopeless minority compared with the millions who are always seeing it for the first time, or for the reassurance and gratification of seeing the conventions fulfilled again."

Kael here was speaking out against the lack of ambition in the movie industry; against the endless rehashing of simplistic movie plots, which, sooner or later, kills the interest in movies in every experienced viewer. What she craved was the same thing that any intelligent person craves from any medium or activity: more depth, more complexity, a steadily increasing intellectual challenge in other words, something to keep her brain power constantly engaged. And since the essence of movies is in their plot, she was in effect asking for more thoughtful, more intricate plotlines -- something beyond the "movies about cute heists by comically assorted gangs" that might have satisfied her in her youth, but could hardly be expected to do so for ever.

Getting back to games, and since the essence of games is not in their plotlines but in their rule systems, we see that asking for more complex games means asking for more involved such systems. It's not that we don't like simple games, you understand -- it's that they already exist, and that we've already played them. And now, of course, we want something more.

The whole idea of a mini-game is in fact a farce, if you stop to consider it for a moment. A mini-game is nothing other than an older game, repackaged and resold to a new audience. Spacewar and Pong were not considered mini-games when they originally appeared, but they are now. You could stick them into a Super Monkey Ball sequel if you wanted to, and then stick that onto a cellphone, since Super Monkey Ball itself is by now nothing but yet another mini-game. A mini-game containing mini-games! Are we excited yet?

This is why I have little interest in most of the hundreds of indie and doujin games that are released each year -- because I've already played them. The hipster kiddies fall over themselves in order to praise them, because a) They weren't around to play them when they were originally released, so they think they're something new, and b) Because they are under the false impression that the indie game is the videogame equivalent to the indie movie, and that therefore praising it will confer on them an aura of coolness and sophistication or some shit.

Yet there is no equivalence! Independent movies can be made on a shoestring, because an intricate plot requires nothing but imagination. This, as a rule, does not work in the domain of games, because more complex games require more complex rules, and more complex rules require, by and large, bigger teams of developers. They require, by and large, bigger budgets. There are exceptions to this rule, in genres in which by their nature jacking up the complexity is -- pardon the pun -- not such a complex undertaking (see STGs, platformers and puzzle games for example), but if you want to keep increasing the complexity of such inherently complex games as Deus Ex or Civilization -- therefore pushing back the boundaries of what's feasible in the realm of interactivity itself! -- two guys in a garage will simply just not do, except perhaps if they are extremely smart and hard-working, and prepared to, like, work nonstop for a decade.

The absurdity of the very concept of the mini-game can be seen in its full glory by considering Made In Wario (aka WarioWare, Inc.), a game that went beyond collections of mini-games in order to give us a collection of microgames. If mini-games represent a step back, microgames represented a step so far back that they ended up going back before even the beginning (the games it contained, in other words, were conceptually simpler than even Pong or Spacewar). Therein lay Made In Wario's brilliance; it carried the absurd concept of the mini-game to its absurd conclusion (it was, in other words, so bad that it ended up being good). But there is nothing more to say about Made In Wario; it was a mere stunt, fun for as long as the novelty lasted (a few hours at best), but nothing more than that. These so-called "microgames" can never hope to captivate the imagination of a human being any more than a mini-game can -- except perhaps if that human being is a child or feebleminded.

So let me hear nothing more against complexity again. There is indeed good implementation of complexity (as, say, in UFO: Enemy Unknown, Alien vs. Predator, or Homura) and bad implementation of complexity (as in Colonization, Cyborg Justice, or Radiant Silvergun), but the difference is a matter of aesthetic judgement on a per game basis. It is, in other words, debatable. Complexity itself, at least as far as intelligent human beings are concerned, is by definition a good thing -- if for no other reason than because it's interesting.