There is something to be said in favour of simplicity. Too often, it is used as a synonym for anti-intellectualism, reductionism and superficiality. Complexity, on the other hand, is often treated as a goal in itself, something to aspire to, resulting in needless obfuscation.
What is lost in these narratives, however, is that simplicity and complexity are two sides of the same coin, two different modes of communication, each with their own pitfalls and benefits, each capable of communicating depth, of being profound and engaging.
This post will get into the ways these approaches can be successfully implemented in games. Specifically, two recent releases, Celeste and Monster Hunter World, provide ideal examples for this discussion, which will also touch on the perils of complexity as aspiration in academia.
Celeste – Simplicity Perfected
We start with Celeste by Matt Makes Games, a gorgeous pixel-art platformer with a warm story about overcoming self-doubt. The premise is simple: you take control of Madeleine as she begins her journey to scale the eponymous Mountain, dashing through perilous environments, finding secrets and uncovering a deeper truth about Madeleine, and the Mountain itself.
It is precisely because of this simplicity that Celeste is a triumph of game design and story-telling.
Mechanically, the game gives you limited tools: you can jump, dash once in the air in eight directions, grab onto walls and climb. That’s about it, apart from one unique environmental interaction per chapter.
However, you use the simple tools to interact with a deep well of platforming puzzles, ramping up the difficulty as you progress, until you finish the game and realise that each level also has a much more difficult “B-side”.
This simplicity is not limited to the mechanics – the real reason I wanted to write about the game is its’ story, in which Madeleine quickly finds out that the Mountain gave corporeal form to her inner lizard brain, a doppelganger who becomes the game’s antagonist, and a representation of the negative inner voice that exists in all of us.
This clash between text and sub-text in Celeste is probably my favourite thing about this game. Check this out:
The main character experiences mental distress and decides to conquer a Mountain to prove to herself that she can accomplish a monumental task. Her journey is perilous, made harder by a part of herself that sabotages her, tells her she is not good enough; she cannot accomplish this task; she should just quit.
Along her journey, she meets new characters, developing intensely different relationships with each of them, uncovering something about her true self in the process. In order to finish her journey, she will need to understand why she relates to others in the ways that she does, and why a part of her welcomes failure.
These two paragraphs describe both the interactive aspects of the game, the act of playing it, the text, as well as the meaning behind Madeleine’s journey, the lessons it wants to teach the player, the sub-text. The joy with which Celeste takes a sledgehammer to the often impenetrable wall between text and sub-text, exposing a profound simplicity, is exhilarating.
The character writing serves to further reinforce that simplicity: the small cast helps Madeleine along her journey, each in their own way that may not be apparent from the start. Despite infrequent dialogue, each character feels real, each speaks with a well-defined voice, each with their own motivations.
Parts of the dialogue are often given animations (a word might jitter or flow, for example) that provide context, give you an idea of how a character pronounced that word or phrase, what mood they are in – a simple but effective trick that helps bring each character to life.
All in all, Celeste is simplicity perfected. It shows that games can be profound without obfuscating themselves in needless complexity – both from a mechanical, and a story-telling perspective. The key word here, however, is needless.
This celebration of simplicity does not mean that games and writing should not be complex. Rather, it means that complexity for the sake of complexity should be avoided.
While complexity can wall off knowledge and ideas from a wider audience, its use affords precision, building on layers to create new understandings. Allow me a short detour into academia, before getting into Monster Hunter World – after all, communicating academic concepts is one of the goals of this blog.
A favourite example of mine whenever the conversation around complexity comes up is Homi Bhabha – a brilliant post-colonial scholar, who contributed to the field with now essential concepts such as mimicry and hybridity. It is impossible for me to “briefly describe his work”, so instead I will give you an overall feel for it.
Bhabha thrives on complexity, making it the foundation of his work: for instance, the idea that ambiguity, hybridity, the spaces in the margins, where cultures are mixed and expressed, define a broader human world, a universal experience, destroying the perceived reality of bounded, isolated groups. Multiple “cultures” exist in these hybrid, marginal, spaces at the same time. Hence, their attempts to define themselves in contrast to their Others destroy the pretence of bounded cultural impermeability, thereby destroying the pretence that cultures can be bound and isolated in the first place.
Bhabha focuses on constructing theories and abstract concepts that describe the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised, the oppressor and the oppressed. In true post-colonial fashion, he explores how the coloniser seeks to be recognised by the Other – the colonised – how in the process of colonisation, and as a result of it, the colonised come to define, defy and mimic their oppressors. This act of mimicry, of imitating behaviour or dress, for example, can thereby expose symbols of the coloniser’s power as artificial and hollow. The colonised do not seek to adopt their oppressor in mimicry, however; instead they imitate, sometimes to aspire, sometimes to resist.
Despite my admiration for his work, I was unable to finish Bhabha’s most well-known book, The Location of Culture, primarily due to the density, and complexity, of his writing. Here is a typical example, admittedly taken out of context:
“Once the liminality of the nation-space is established, and its signifying difference is turned from the boundary ‘outside’ to its finitude ‘within’, the threat of cultural difference is no longer a problem of ‘other’ people.”
The Location of Culture (London 2004), p. 215.
I think I know what he wants to say: in the premise, first, those on the margins of the nation can now claim to be part of it, and second, the nation no longer needs to define itself by groups and concepts it excludes, but rather by those it includes. Once these are established, the nation’s variety, its’ marginal groups, become an internal threat to its cultural boundedness, a threat that earlier came from the Other, from outside the nation.
Bhabha has a very clear understanding here of what each concept – liminality, difference, boundary – means, but as I argued in an earlier piece, these hyper-signifiers are complex enough to inhabit many meanings depending on who reads them. Hence, his work suffers from obfuscation, from what appears to be needless complexity, something that his critics are only eager to point out.
Despite my appreciation for his work, these criticisms are definitely warranted – regardless of an object’s value, whether it is an academic text or a videogame, complexity can obfuscate otherwise great work.
A good example of complexity in games, needless or otherwise, is the Monster Hunter series. As luck would have it, Monster Hunter World, the latest iteration in this Japanese franchise, was released by Capcom at the end of January 2018, primed for some hot takes.
Monster Hunter World – a Complex Hybrid
It would be disingenuous of me to discuss complexity and games right now without going into Monster Hunter World. Part of a notoriously complex, obtuse series of games, MH World is packed full of systems, different activities, mechanics, vendors and NPCs that overload new players.
And yet, despite all this complexity, this instalment of Monster Hunter succeeded in attracting a much larger audience in the Western world. Partly, this is because the developers moved the game from its traditional, technologically limited, handheld consoles to the current generation of home consoles, complete with much more detailed graphics and better controls.
More importantly, however, MH World streamlined many of its previously obtuse and hard-to-understand elements, to an extent that you don’t need to download apps on your phone anymore just to know what upgrades you will be getting for your weapon as you progress, or what parts of the monster you can hack off with a sword.
In many ways, Monster Hunter World is successful precisely because it refined the way it is complex – lifting the veil that obfuscated much of the game. Just as Celeste is an example of simplicity done right, so is Monster Hunter World an example of complexity refined from obtuseness to transparency.
In Japan, however, this was never a problem. Perhaps, Monster Hunter World is also an example of hybridity in games, then?
A Japanese product, whose popularity translated to a Western audience because it adopted some of the characteristics familiar to the latter, without compromising its core identity? A result of the inherent hybridity of the human world, of the impossibility of cultural isolation perhaps?
To bastardise the premise of the Bhabha quote, Monster Hunter World has long established its complexity, its variety – the mechanics that exist in its liminal spaces. Now, it does not need its outside boundary – the needless complexity – to be its defining feature, to signify its difference from other games. Instead, Monster Hunter is ready to be defined by its core mechanics, the gameplay loop, the upgrade systems etc. – the newly exposed finitude.
Is this reading a stretch, perhaps needlessly complex? Most definitely. But then, so is a lot of Bhabha’s work, so it’s only fitting.
While Monster Hunter revels in its complexity, on the other side of the spectrum we have Celeste, designed from the ground up to be simple, accessible, yet profound, the Ernest Hemingway to Monster Hunter’s Homi Bhabha.
And it’s great that today we can enjoy both.
If you are interested in reading more about either of these games:
Austin Walker’s fantastic review which also goes into some problematic colonial aspects of Monster Hunter World.
Samir Farag’s beautifully-written piece on Celeste, on the way it reconciles fear of failure and how it helped him personally.